Cort Guitar labor struggle ends after 13 years

Posted on : 2019-04-23 17:41 KST Modified on : 2019-04-23 17:41 KST
Company agrees to honorary reinstatement and official apology
Kim Gyeong-bong
Kim Gyeong-bong

Lee In-geun emerged from the meeting, holding a document outlining a tentative agreement with Cort Guitars (also called Cor-Tek), his head hanging low. Head of the Cort chapter of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, Lee had been part of a hunger strike, whose members occupied a tent in front of Cort’s headquarters in Seoul’s Deungchon neighborhood. Another member of the union chapter and hunger strike, Kim Gyeong-bong, was staring blankly at a wall. Lim Jae-chun, also part of the union chapter and the hunger strike, took the document from Lee and stared down at it.

Holding up the single piece of paper, Lim made an effort to speak. “We’ve waited 13 years to get this agreement, to hold it in our hands. I hope this is the last time that struggling workers have to go on a hunger strike. I hope that young people don’t have to go hungry or hold sit-ins on rooftops to demand their rights,” he said.

The three men couldn’t even look at each other, the corners of their eyes red from holding back the urge to weep unabashedly. For quite some time, Lim wiped his eyes with his hands until Lee patted him on the shoulder. That was when he finally put a spoonful of thin gruel into his mouth, the first food he’d eaten in 42 days.

The labor dispute at Cort, the longest labor struggle in Korean history, finally concluded on Apr. 22. After 4,464 days of trying to recover their jobs and countless hours on the road, these workers at last received acknowledgement from the company that their layoff had basically been a mistake. The three workers at Cort Guitars who had been laid off by Cort in 2007 on the grounds of “difficult financial circumstances” will receive “honorary reinstatement” on May 2.

During the final round of negotiations in a conference room at the Seoul regional office of the Korea Gas Corporation, located in Seoul’s Gangseo District, on Monday, the parties concerned reached a tentative agreement on seven terms. Among these terms, the company agreed to express its regret for the layoff; to reinstate, on an honorary basis, the three individuals who never stopped asking for their jobs back (Lee In-geun, Kim Gyeong-bong, and Lim Jae-chun); and to pay a settlement to 25 members of the Cort labor union, including Lee, Kim, and Lim. Furthermore, all parties concerned agreed to withdraw all civil, criminal, and administrative lawsuits that they’ve filed against each other. Labor and management are planning to hold a ceremony at the same place on the morning of Apr. 23, where the agreement will be signed by Park Young-ho, president of Cort Guitars, and by Kim Ho-gyu, chair of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union.

The 13-year labor struggle at Cort Guitars began with an abrupt layoff in 2007. Claiming financial troubles, the company fired its employees en masse and shut down its factory in Daejeon. The guitars that had been made there were transferred to a facility in Indonesia. But the laid-off workers refused to accept the company’s claims because of its obvious success: it was one of the world’s top three guitar manufacturers, controlling 30% of the global market. The workers took their complaint to the courts.

In 2009, the Seoul High Court sided with the laid-off workers, when they appealed a lower court’s decision in their lawsuit, which asked for the layoff to be invalidated. The high court ruled that the layoff was invalid, because there was no reason to think the company was in a “pressing financial crisis.”

Supreme Court reversal result of corruption under Park administration

But in 2012, this ruling was reversed by the Supreme Court. In the process of remanding the case to the lower courts, the Supreme Court relied on the novel, even shocking, legal argument that “a layoff is valid when it’s designed to respond to a financial crisis that will occur in the future.” Article 24 of the Labor Standards Act states that a layoff is only permissible when it’s necessitated by a “pressing financial crisis,” but the court said that this condition was satisfied by the possibility of a future crisis, one that hasn’t even occurred yet.

This ruling is what the terminated workers found most jarring. In May 2018, investigators looking into the Supreme Court’s alleged abuse of its judicial and administrative authority announced that this 2012 ruling was one of the decisions they suspected of having been one of the “courthouse deals” between former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and ex-president Park Geun-hye. Investigators explained that Yang had blithely justified the layoff of the 25 workers as part of his attempt to expand the appellate court system, one of his long-standing ambitions.

But the workers weren’t alone in their struggle: there were those who sat with them under the scorching sun, who braved the cold wind. From the outset, musicians were by their side, organizing concerts and festivals. On the workers’ five trips overseas to musical instrument expositions in countries such as Germany and the US, Korean expats had helped them organize one-person demonstrations. Several civic groups also set up a joint action committee to support them.

“I’m grateful to the people who have struggled on behalf of the Cort issue over the years. I hope there won’t be any more workers in this country who are forced to suffer because of layoffs,” said Lee In-geun.

By Cho Hye-jeong, staff reporter

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