The Music and Struggle Must Resonate
On a cold winter morning, I get off at exit three of the National Assembly subway station to meet the members of my study group. We have been reading the biography of worker martyr Jeon Tae Il, and today we will meet the Cort and Cor-tek guitar workers to learn about long-term union struggles. Just before moving to Korea in 2009, a Korean American activist-musician told me about how Cort/Cort-tek workers had unfairly lost their jobs to outsourcing. Six and a half years later, I make my way to a makeshift tent pitched in front of the Seoul Saenuri Party headquarters 133 days earlier.
The Cort/Cor-tek workers’ struggle has gone on for longer than 133 days and began even well before 2009. It has been ongoing since the 2007 unannounced closures of the Cort factory in Incheon and Cor-tek factory in Daejeon and subsequent layoffs with the establishment of Cort factories in China and Indonesia. The closures were justified by falling sales and net profit. Yet, closer inspection by the union revealed steady profits with sharp drops in just 2006 and 2007. Workers were told business was poor even despite the company’s 2006 AA0 rating by the Korea Investors Service’s – the highest rating possible.
The Cort/Cor-tek workers’ struggle for reinstatement has taken many forms over the years: long-term tent occupations, aerial protests, hunger strikes, cultural actions and tours, lawsuits, and international solidarity concerts. As we walk toward the tent, I wonder how they sustained their fight for so long. We gather in the tent with four of the workers. The co-director of the trade union Director Lee Ingeun retells their struggle as he flips through a dossier documenting their court struggle. How many times must have they repeated their story?
In 2009 the Seoul High Court ruled the 2007 Cort/Cor-tek layoffs unjust because contrary to its claims of financial difficulty (used to justify the lay-offs to the workers), the company had been profiting. In 2012, the Supreme Court repealed the ruling stating that the lay-offs were justified given the possibility of financial difficulty in the future. The court’s logic sent a clear and dangerous message: Companies and corporations can justify worker layoffs on speculation; furthermore, they may maximize profits by sending factories overseas without consideration for the workers and families left behind. Despite some favorable rulings, the Supreme Court again re-affirmed its position in support of the company’s lay-offs stating that reinstatement of the workers would not create significant profit to Cort Instruments: workers were disposable, including those who’d spent their youth building the company. The workers are appealing the rulings.
Cort/Cort-tek workers have not only had to fight the company but also media and politicians determined to hurt their public image: Donga Daily and Korean Economic Daily reported in 2008 and 2014 respectively that the workers’ strikes and protests led to the closures of the Cort/Cor-tek factories. Similarly, last fall, Saenuri Party chief Kim Museong stated at the National Assembly that healthy, high profit companies such as Cort/Cor-tek are forced to close their doors due to unions. Neither the articles nor ruling party chief made mention of the company’s illegal layoffs, violations of the Industrial Safety and Health Act (산업안전보건법), and the exploitative working conditions that drove workers to take action. Furthermore, the suggestion that workers protesting layoffs and demanding reinstatement want to shut down the factory defies logic.
Such single-sided, false reporting not only hurts Cort/Cor-tek workers but all workers: When people read and accept these news and statements, it plants the notion that union activity destroys hardworking companies in the public consciousness. The union received a favorable ruling against Donga, and after protestation, the Korea Economic Daily also admitted to false reporting. However, despite corrections issued by Donga Daily three years later and Korea Economic Daily a year later, a small group of workers fighting to contain the damage of misreporting and false statements by major media outlets and high level public officials is an uphill battle. Despite the daunting task, Cort/Cort-tek workers are determined to stand their ground. So, they continue their 133 day occupation until Kim Museong apologizes for his statement.
Ultimately, Cort/Cort-tek workers see that victory must be achieved beyond the courts. Director Lee Ingeun explains that not even the South Korean government can fulfill the workers’ demands—the solution can be made only if international musicians step in. Indeed, in a society where the power of capital is protected by law and supersedes human rights and dignity, a company need simply pay a small fine out of the great profits it extracts when breaking the law, exploiting its workers and then casting them aside. So, the workers went global.
In January 2010, A Night of Guitars, was organized by activists in Los Angeles in solidarity with the Cort/Cor-tek workers. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Boots Riley of The Coup, and other U.S.-based musicians performed in solidarity, criticizing a system that exploited workers to maximize profit. Similar solidarity efforts took place in Japan. Cort doesn’t simply sell Cort guitars; it also produces and exports for major international guitar companies such as Fender, Stratocaster, and Gibson. We must continue the work started by Korean and international activists and educate musicians and music-lovers worldwide that the guitars they are playing and listening to are created by exploiting the makers. Those touched by the music must choose and act in favor of the human rights of the workers who have made the music possible. This truth must spread in the same way the sound of a plucked string resonates and permeates the world. However, for now, their fight has come back home.
The following Tuesday, on the Cort/Cor-tek workers’ 135th day of struggle in Yeoido, our study group attended the workers’ weekly cultural night. In the course of their struggle, the workers had picked up the guitars they had dedicated their lives to making and formed the band Cor-Ban. They play a set about the struggle and absurdities of a society and system that puts profit over people and the legal system that facilitates it. Two members jam on the guitar and the third, a 30 year Cor-tek worker, keeps a steady beat on his yellow sound box. After the set, a laid-off GM factory worker from Gunsan relays a solidarity message and speaks about their struggle. As I listen to his speech about the impact of layoffs, my mind begins to draw our connections. The workers are fathers and mothers and partners and siblings; their children are our students and the kids we sit next to on the bus.
They have been fighting for almost one decade now, and their struggle has evolved from a personal fight to one on behalf of workers nationwide. They are fighting against bad companies and dangerous labor reforms, but they are not alone because we stand in solidarity with Cort/ Cor-tek workers.
Image above is of "A Single Spark" Study members and the Cort/Cort-tek workers
 In 2010 the Incheon District Prosecutor fined Cort Instruments CEO Park Youngho for ignoring communication with the company’s labor union and fined the leader of the hired thugs who violently disrupted union activity on seven occasions. The Supreme Court found Park guilty of disturbing labor union activity in 2013.
By Joyce Kim (A Single Spark Study member)