Two Good Reasons to Boycott Fender

Two Good Reasons to Boycott Fender


Few brands are so ubiquitous in the world of music as Fender. Even folks who have never picked up a guitar know the name. It’s been associated with some of the greatest axe-players of all time--Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, George Harrison just for starters. Their quality is solid, their sound is great, and the simple “cool factor” of being seen playing one is almost second to none.

So here comes a big, buzzkilling bomb: nobody should play a Fender guitar--at least nobody who cares the least bit about justice in the world. And certainly nobody who calls themselves an ally of immigrant rights or the right to make a decent living. In fact, Fender is guilty not only of crossing the line against one of these causes, but both at the same time. Neither should be taken lightly.

Almost a year-and-a-half out, and Arizona’s vicious anti-immigrant law SB 1070 remains more or less in effect. Though a federal injunction still blocks most of the act’s more controversial aspects, its remaining points still effectually reduce the land of the Grand Canyon to an apartheid state.

As the saying goes, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, the economic and cultural boycott continues, as does the Sound Strike (who, far from fading over the past year, have more signatories and supporters than ever) and the consumer boycotts. Plenty of companies based in Arizona have taken not-insignificant hits, and a flurry of targeted campaigns in various cities continue to pressure their governments to pull out of contracts with such companies.

Enter Fender Guitars, headquartered in--you guessed it--Arizona. To date, the Scottsdale-based company has yet to utter a word against SB 1070. I’ve scoured the Internet and have yet to see so much as half a press release that even mentions the matter in passing. It seems an offensive snub given the good graces that Latino artists have brought the brand over the year--from Shakira to Juanes to Freddy Fender, who was obviously so in love with the guitars he took them as his last name.

Fender has gained immensely from being based in Arizona. The state has some of the most lax business regulations and lowest taxes in the country. Meanwhile, the atmosphere created by SB 1070 is one of straight-up fear. Latino families both documented and undocumented have uprooted themselves and fled the state. The highly-publicized internment camps of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and like-minded officials have continued unabated. States from Georgia to Pennsylvania have at least attempted to embrace parts of 1070 in their own legislation.

It’s for these reasons that the Sound Strike, Alto Arizona, the Puente Movement and others engaged in the fight against the law continue to support the boycott of Arizona and companies that do business there. More than ever, these efforts have to be redoubled; Fender seems a good candidate for such a campaign's cross-hairs.

Fender’s indifference to human rights doesn’t end at the border. Globally, in fact, the company is more than willing to cooperate with some of the shadiest characters imaginable. This past January, as the National Association of Music Merchants held their yearly conference in Anaheim, California, a picket of South Korean workers and union activists gathered in front. Throughout the weekend, the demonstrators were joined by immigrant rights activists, fellow unionists and, of course, musicians.

The workers’ demands were simple: give us our jobs back. They represented hundreds of other workers who had worked for a Korea-based guitar manufacturer known as Cort--in some cases for decades. Conditions were unsafe, hours were long, payment often below minimum wage. After a long struggle the workers had managed to legally unionize and win better conditions. Not long after that, Cort shuttered its main plant in Daejon. Manufacturing was moved to China and Indonesia, the Korean workers were fired.

That was four years ago, and Cort’s CEO Yung Ho Park--one of the riches businessmen in Asia--has refused to give the workers their jobs back. What’s more, Fender Guitars, who have an ongoing contract with Cort, once again refuse to cut ties. Fender gets quite a bit of extra coin from outsourcing its parts manufacturing to Cort; it’s a familiar story in the globalized world. Other instrument-building companies maintaining contracts with Cort include Ibanez, Gibson and Parkwood.

Ironically, the one company associated with Cort to meet with the workers was Fender, who did so in January and March of 2010. The company promised to conduct a thorough investigation. They didn’t. “Instead,” according to the Cort Action website, “Fender has conducted a closed-door , internal investigation and has not made any moves to suspend its business with Cort, instead opening TWO stores in Korea and continuing with business as usual.”

It’s a slap in the face; no exaggeration. But the support for the Cort among musicians has been impressive: Ozomatli, the Coup’s Boots Riley. “World Wide Rebel Songs,” the title track off of Tom Morello’s new album, was inspired by the Cort workers. Perhaps it’s no surprise that many of these names are also artists observing the Sound Strike.

The bad publicity has obviously rubbed the honchos at Fender the wrong way. In January, mere days after the NAMM conference, I was one of thousands of signatories demanding Fender to do the right thing and sever ties with Cort. I was shocked when I received a response; most of the time when one fills out petitions you don’t expect such a thing. Perhaps the fact that I had included a message stating that I am a music journalist urging his readers to boycott got to someone a little too much.

The reply was from one Larry Thomas, who identified himself as “a new employee” of Fender Guitars, admonished me to get my “facts straight” and insisted that the company was “very concerned with human rights.”

Larry Thomas is not “a new employee” of Fender. He’s the company’s CEO, appointed in July of last year. Apparently, Thomas, who was in attendance at NAMM, had gotten hold of one of the pamphlets handed out by the Cort campaign. It apparently stuck in his craw.

Like any modern CEO, his insistence that his company observes human rights was accompanied by the accusation that the Cort campaign was nothing but front a Korean labor union--as if that were some sort of smoking gun. He also had no answer for why a company that supposedly values decent treatment of workers has factories in counties with some of the worst labor violations in the world--China, Mexico, the list goes on.

There are plenty of unflattering descriptions for Larry Thomas. Probably the most accurate is that he’s swallowed the nasty taste of his own propaganda for so long that he can’t help but spew bile out his own mouth. The reason we should care, however, is much bigger than Thomas himself.

As we are reminded on the Cort Action website: “[T]he struggle of the Korean workers cannot take place in Korea alone, but must be joined by anyone who believes that music cannot be made under terrible conditions, and that workers everywhere, whether in Korea or anywhere else, deserve to be treated with dignity.”

That principle rings truer than ever today, when millions are unemployed in the US amidst draconian trade deals with South Korea, and when despite all this we are told that the non-American workers are the ones to blame.

Of course, it’s a lot bigger than Fender too. It’s as big as a system that presents us with scant opportunity in one hand and a cat o’ nine tails in the other, the promise of opportunity mixed with the reality of inequality. Taking down the whole edifice may seem like a tall order. An upsurge in people seeking to hold Fender accountable, to demand that our music not be soaked from head to toe in dirt and blood, seems like a good start.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies ( and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He can be reached at