Guitar Workers + Musicians United!

Posts Tagged ‘guitar’

The story behind your guitar

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Outside Shinjuku station, Tokyo, a street musician performs on the body of his guitar.

Many of us, at some point in our lives, have picked up a guitar and strummed it. The guitar invites experimentation in that way. It isn’t made up of a million different keys like the piano, it doesn’t require sharing spit like a horn instrument, and it doesn’t need a bow to bring it to life. It presents a field of strings. Under the pressure of your fingertips alone, without even knowing a single chord, you will make a sound.

Even if you don’t own one, there’s a guitar in your life somewhere. From your elementary school classroom to a concert you’ve attended to the street musician standing on the corner in the city where you live, the guitar has been there.

But the guitar’s ubiquity also attests to its affordability.  Most people do not question the low price of the mass-market guitar. But exactly how is it that an instrument made out of wood, strings, metals, and electronic parts, that needs human workers for assembly and finishing, be so cheap?

Acoustic Guitar Diagram. Source

The answer, and true of the industry for decades, is simple: by outsourcing the labor from abroad, where workers are paid much lower wages. Since the 1970s, for the most part, this has meant outsourcing from Korea. In fact, until very recently, Korean workers made more than half of the world’s guitars.

Since Cort Guitars alone commands 30% of this global guitar market, it is possible that the men and women who worked at the Cort and Cor-tek factories in Korea were making your first guitar. As the folks on Acoustic Guitar Forum tell it, “Between Cort and Samick [another Korean guitar manufacturer], everybody who has played guitar for a while has played one, whether they know it or not.”

The fact that many American, European and Japanese guitars were made in Korea has long been known among guitar aficionados. But unlike the publicity surrounding the export garment industry, the abuses of guitar workers to feed this annual $6 billion dollar industry is rarely publicized.

At the Cort and Cor-tek factores in Daejon and Incheon, ‘cheap guitar’ translated into a pressure for speed, cutting corners on required safety equipment, harassment and forced overtime. They endured the kind of conditions that were optimal for the guitar- not for them. And thus the Cor-tek factory had no windows. A single dust mask was given for an entire week. They couldn’t go home until production goals were met- but weren’t paid for all the extra hours. After 10 years of work, this ‘seniority’ still earned them less than 24 dollars a day.

As one Cort worker told me in Japan, waving his four-fingered hand,

It’s rare to find a worker with all ten of their fingers. Some people are missing multiple fingers, or all of the tips.”

Jack Westheimer, the co-founder of Cort Guitars, acknowledged in this article,

There were two factors driving up costs in Japan and Korea. The first was a labor shortage. In both countries there weren’t enough people willing to do what they called ‘3-D’ jobs: ones that are dirty, dangerous and difficult, like working in a guitar plant. Why work in a guitar plant when you can make more money as a waiter?’

That’s a good question, Jack. WHY work at a guitar plant at such an unlivable wage and in such demeaning conditions?

Still, the wages weren’t low ENOUGH for Yung-ho Park, CEO of Cort Guitars, and Westheimer. And they didn’t like the fact that the Korean Cort and Cor-tek workers were unionizing.

In fact, they picked the move to factories in China and Indonesia, as Westheimer says, because

Unemployment in China is equal to 250 million people, or twice the entire US workforce. With numbers like that, it will be a long time before there’s a labor shortage. The Chinese government believes that strong labor unions reduce employment levels, so there won’t be union problems either. “

And yet both Korea’s National Labor Relations Board and the High Court of Korea ruled that the mass layoffs and the penalization of union members was illegal and discriminatory. Running from the unions – and doing countless other illegal actions, such as hiring thugs to inflict violence on the workers – is this REALLY what is necessary to make a cheap quality guitar?

It’s clear that Cort Guitars is on a race to the bottom.  Guitar companies in the US and elsewhere that seek to have their budget lines should reconsider: Is it worth it?


“Open the factory! We want to work!”

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2009 at 2:45 pm

For the Cort and Cor-tek workers in Korea, life was a blur of sawing and grinding wood, painting, varnishing, fitting, sanding. With hardly any time to see their families, they left for work at the factories in Daejon and Incheon while it was still dark outside, and they came home long after the sun had gone down.

Some people ask: ‘Well, if it was such hard work, and the conditions so terrible, why do the workers want Cort to reopen the factory?’

After making guitars for decades, this is not just another job- it is their art and their livelihood. To them, there is nothing like seeing the finished guitar in the factory and then slung on the backs of a musician in the street. They can say, “I made that.”

Of course, it’s not as if many of the Cort or Cor-tek workers themselves had been to the concerts where their guitars were played, or had time to pick it up and learn it themselves.

But through their struggle to be reinstated at Cort Guitars, the solidarity between the musicians and workers has brought the two together in a way that has not often happened before. Now the workers know who buys the guitars, and now musicians care about who makes their guitars.

Yokohama: Cor-tek worker with the Cort guitar he may have made in the factory, altered for a performance at Cream Festival (Nov. 7, 2009).

As musicians, artists, makers, and cultural activists – we believe that the people who make our instruments, who make art and music and beauty possible, should be able to work without fear, without harassment, without discrimination.

The Cort and Cort-tek workers have raised their voices for more than 1000 days of struggle, and we lift our voices with them by making our music, by lifting our brushes, by taking photos, and by telling the workers’ story in whatever way we know how.

Just as music and art are a global language that crosses borders, so is the belief in justice for the workers who make the music possible. So we take action and we ask you to join us – because a world in which workers are denied their rights and livelihoods is not the world in which we can make music.

See some of the past solidarity actions by musicians and artists (Korea, Japan, Germany) and submit your ideas and work to be posted on the Musicians and Artists page.
Even better, come to our actions in LA and Anaheim this coming January 8-17!

No-Cort! solidarity

In Uncategorized on November 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

A supporter in Seoul, Korea holds one-man protest

We ask for your solidarity and creative actions.

This is about the people who made one third of the guitars being circulated worldwide but didn’t own any. Do the names Fender, Ibanez, G&L, or Parkwood sound familiar to you?

Their factory was unventilated and had no windows in the name of ‘high productivity.’ They worked without a break, like hens in cages, and eventually became ill and injured. Some workers lost their fingers in the sawing machines, others suffered from chronic muscle and bone related diseases caused by the sanding and grinding process with only a facemask against the dust. Most of them contracted bronchitis or asthma caused by working in the unventilated paint rooms full of solvents. They worked overtime without being paid for all those hours, arriving early and leaving late, some even collapsing at the factory and then asked to sign resignation papers by their boss while they lay in their hospital beds.

Nevertheless, these Korean workers were happy whenever they saw the gleaming guitars inlaid with mother of pearl, produced by their own hands and exported to countries around the world. They worked hard, day and night, for ten to twenty years with pride. Finally, after establishing their labor union in 2006, they raised their wage to the highest level in 12 years, but the raise only brought them near the minimum wage of Korea.

Meanwhile, Park Young Ho, the CEO of Cor-tek, has built up a fortune of $78Million dollars during this period, at the expense of the workers’ labor. (Click “read more” below to get the rest of the post)

Read the rest of this entry »

Welcome to the international site for the Cort/Cor-tek workers actions

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Because we believe that there can be no music without the workers who make the instruments.

Because the struggle for the Korean workers at Cort/Cor-tek knows no borders, and needs the support of people around the world, including musicians, activists, journalists, artists, cultural activists and anyone who believes that workers and artists need each other and should fight together for the right to make music that means something, that calls for justice.

On this blog, you can read and hear the Korean guitar workers’ stories, you can see the recent international actions by supporters from around the world, hear from the musicians and artists who support the Cort workers, see the media gallery of actions and events, and contact us or the Cort company and its global sponsors to demand basic justice for the workers.

Cor-tek factory in Daejon, by photographer Noh Soon Taek (노순택 작가)

As  you can see in the photo above, the factories in Korea are quiet, and the half-completed guitars are warping and cracking, gathering dust. For the workers who made these guitars, watching these  guitars turning into waste, the evidence of Cort/Cor-tek Guitars suddenly and without warning shifting their factories overseas, is heartbreaking.

What do they want? They want Cort/ Cor-tek to re-open the factories and let them regain their livelihoods, their dignity, and their identity as guitar workers.

For anyone considering buying a Cort guitar or bass, please reconsider.

Aren’t people worth more than guitars?

For current actions taking place in Korea and a history of the Cort workers actions in solidarity with cultural activists in the Korean language, see this blog: