With so many different nationalities represented among cruise ships' crews, seafarers' and maritime workers' unions clearly play an essential  role when it comes to crafting labor (and various other) agreements for workers at sea. Most  major cruise lines, say experts and union officials alike, have collective bargaining agreements on board their vessels and work readily with the unions to resolve any issues that affect cruise ship workers - anything from negotiating pay to dealing with sexual harassment on board.

Labor conditions, too, have vastly improved as the industry has grown, but nevertheless, the unions are there to provide essential backup to the employee if and when a situation arises - as well as to provide labor and pay standards for crewmembers.

Working For Crew

"The first thing we really do is negotiate the terms and conditions that people work under," said Johan Oyen, director of the Norwegian Seamen's Union (NSU) in Miami, an affiliate (as all unions are) of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), which is funded by its member unions. The NSU, like all unions, is funded through member dues, and counts thousands of Norwegian seafarers - cruise ship workers or not - as members. At any rate, protection is the most critical thing. "That's the most important thing, to make sure that they are protected." Oyen said that cruise ship  workers don't necessarily have to be members of a union in order to work on a ship that has collective bargaining agreements onboard; he/she will automatically receive pay and shipboard benefits according to those agreements and can still approach the appropriate union (often according to nationality) with a grievance if one so arises. The union will then negotiate on behalf of the affected party or parties.

In the same respect, union members can still work aboard ships that do not have collective bargaining agreements on board, and can still go to their union to settle various grievances but are generally at the mercy of the cruise line and have to accept whatever pay structure the line decides upon. It boils down to a basic issue of supply and demand in an industry where there are about 120,000 cruise ship workers at sea at any given time, Oyen says. "There just isn't room for everybody who wants to work in the companies that pay the best," Oyen said. "They will take what they can get."

In the event that a cruise worker takes a grievance to the union for resolution, Oyen said the NSU - along with most other unions, in his experience - works with the line to quickly solve the problem. "Most negotiations end in compromise, not conflict," he said. "When everything is wrapped up, both parties have to be satisfied, and it does usually work out that way."

Generally speaking, workers are represented by the national unions of the countries they're from, and some countries have several different unions offering protection to workers. The ITF, which acts as the secretariat to these unions around the world, provides guidelines by which the affiliate unions operate. There's the Philippine Seafarers' Union, for example, and the Seafarers' International Union of North America (which represents workers on U.S.-flagged ships; the Pride of Aloha currently being the only cruise ship under its watch). These two are only the tip of the iceberg - Oyen said there are some 600 maritime unions in 140 different countries around the world representing workers, though he does note that not all of those unions may represent cruise ship employees. 

Some Lines Still Not Unionized

Of the major foreign-flagged cruise lines, only Disney Cruises and Carnival Cruise Lines do not have collective bargaining agreements on board their ships, said Scott Brady, an ITF inspector with the Seafarers' International Union of North America based out of Port Canaveral. Carnival and the ITF, said Brady, are in discussions and could soon move to bring union agreements onboard its ships. True, said Oyen, Carnival has moved closer toward union coverage in the last several years and has been proactive in what it offers its crew members; it was, for example, one of the first cruise lines to offer a retirement plan.

Disney, on the other hand, is not likely to move toward coverage any time soon, said Brady.

Oyen noted that it's also not that Disney pays less than the average major cruise line, and that it can get away with doing so because it doesn't have collective bargaining agreements. "Their wage structure isn't an issue for Disney and could have ITF agreements," Oyen said. "I think, however, with Disney, it is that they have the notion that they want to do it alone. They're a top to bottom company. The top gives orders and the bottom follows."

Costa Crociere, meanwhile, announced last year that it launched a program to bring the company and its employees into compliance with various maritime regulations and social accountability standards. The company, which does have collective bargaining agreements on its ships, is essentially guaranteeing socially responsible working conditions as well as payment of correct salary.

While not all lines have collective bargaining agreements on board, it is, however, safe to say that poor working and living conditions for cruise ship employees are largely a thing of the past. Indeed, said Doug Stevenson, the director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights in New York, an agency in New York that provides counseling and assistance to seafarers worldwide. "We don't get very many complaints from cruise ships," he said. "The newer vessels are a lot better." 

Excerpt from the Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine: Spring 2005