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Should Yacht Workers Unionize?

May 15th 08
By Capt. Charlie Kiss

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary piece by Capt. Charlie Kiss. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of and its growing list of registered members. Commentaries are designed to offer opinions on topics that spark conversation and debate. Feel free to leave your comments where indicated at the bottom of the page. - Matt


There’s a question in my mind that seems ideal for discussion on It’s an old topic in our specialized industry that remains as a great source of debate.


Should yacht captains and crew be unionized?


I want to emphasize that I am 100% against unionizing in the yachting industry. I have been on private yachts for more than 30 years and can't see one situation where being in a union would have helped me gain a competitive edge or earn more respect from a yacht owner than my own professional display of skills, training, enthusiasm and desire.


Let me provide some background so you’ll understand why I take this position.


Prior to knowing what yachting was all about, I held a local union card for one of the oldest organized labor establishments in the United States. That union is responsible for providing skilled union labor to erect everything from skyscrapers that transform cityscapes to tile flooring in suburban “bedroom” communities.


You may be wondering what this has to do with yachting, but I assure you it does. Before one is even considered for union membership, he or she must have at least some practical experience actually working in the industry.

You can’t just walk up to a union rep and say, “I want a union card. Get me a job.”


For me, that minimum exposure to the industry came from time spent with my dad. My father picked me up each day after middle school and took me to the job site after hours. I would assist him with strictly non-skilled chores, such as sweeping the floors and collecting and discarding all of the workers’ personal lunch trash.


How does this example relate to the yachting world? Think of a green deckhand washing and drying the boat. You get the point.


I gained valuable experience during those early years and some money, too. Upon graduation from high school I decided to enter the labor force technically as an unskilled worker, but with some sort of experience in a trade that would lead to a solid, union paycheck.


Now, let’s see how this translates again to the yacht and crew industries.


Think of a deckhand without any certifications. Since he or she may have experience helping dad clean the family boat for free, the young deckhand now feels ready to wash and dry a boat for money. Our young deckhand is entering the workforce and getting paid. In time, the deckhand will improve skills and gain more valuable experience, but still may not be on track for advancement and a better paycheck unless he or she takes some personal initiative.


The only way to make more money in any career is through advancement, which is gained by acquiring more education and experience. That comes from your own passion to succeed and always improve.


A captain may encourage the young person to get a STCW95 and a position on board will follow. But it’s still up to the individual, not a union, to keep the fires burning and keep you moving forward.


Just to be clear, when I started in this business you did not need any certification to wash a boat, only the right attitude and boundless energy. Today, it seems like you see a portfolio of certificates followed by an entitlement attitude and an energy level that I’d rather not mention, let alone employ.


I believe a union will hurt an industry that has emerged from a mostly owner-operator weekend cruiser operation to the luxurious floating hotels that we see in increasingly higher numbers today.


In my opinion, it’s the slackers and moochers in our industry that a union for yachting crew will protect. This harms the reputation of the union and does little, if anything, to reward the people who are actually eager to work and grow in the industry.


If you can’t do the work, complain all the time and don’t put forth honest effort, you undermine the entire industry. A union presence can only be hurt by these kinds of slackers. The union does not reward true achievers.


Ask yourself: Do you need to be in a union to know you want to succeed in a chosen field? Are your individual goals governed by whether or not you are carrying a union card?


Our industry is in growth mode. It needs to make a strong commitment to the maritime schools and, even on the high school level, must recruit individuals who want to make yachting a career, not solely a place to make money.


What are your thoughts? Would unions improve work conditions and growth opportunities for captains and crew or would they just serve as obstacles in the way?


I’m sure you have an opinion. Share it here and let the debate go on.




Capt. Charlie Kiss is a 30-year veteran of the yachting industry. His on board experiences span from the frigid seas near the glittering glaciers of the Pacific Northwest to the warm, turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, with many adventures in between. When on land, he blogs from his home in Stuart, Fla. (USA).


Rating  Average 5 out of 5

  • Captains need to take care of their crew first, yacht second, and owners & guests last. From what I hear and read, it sounds like the other way around. You cannot take care of your owners and guests unless you have a well maintained yacht in the care of a highly motivated and happy crew. I insure the proper care of my crew first and the rest falls into place in the order I first described.

    In my personal experience a union crew would stifle the overall yachting experience. Perhaps the fact that we do no charters at all and have owners with over 40 years of yachting experience, the welfare of the crew comes first, boat second, them last. Again, when the crew is happy, the boat is happy, and the owners and their guests are rewarded with the feeling and service that they come first. The list of reasons why my crew is happy certainly outweigh any reasons why they may not be happy. It is my position as their captain to make their time on board a positive and rewarding experience. If I can't do that, then why do it at all.

    My entire career has been in the private sector, therefore, I cannot speak for those of you working charter. Does anyone know if the charter crews burn out faster than the private crews? Does the flag flown by a yacht treat crew indifferently from other flags? Do under experienced captains and novice owners have anything to do with the issue? Perhaps it's the charter industry that needs to be unionized.

    Continue the debate.
    Posted by captseakiss 08/06/2008 04:36:56

  • Why is it when people talk of unions they instantly think of industrial action, picketing and the like. The concept of a union was and is to collect together and support the interests of members. At present there is no-one protecting the interests of yacht crew.

    Indeed most parties have a vested interest in not protecting them. There are a never ending set of stories of crew being fired and abused by their employers be they captains or owners and the bottom line is that it is simply not acceptable in an industry in the 21st century.

    Routinely captains claim to speak on behalf of owners about what the industry needs without educating themselves about what they are talking about. I am sure some owners do stipulate white, slim attractive people only but I suspect more often the captains are the ones stereotyping the owner's requirements. As a demographic captains are surely not the prettiest bunch but they usually set very high standards for what we lovingly call "presentation" in the industry.

    If a female crew member loses her position because she puts on weight and a male crew member does not, that is simple sex discrimination. But, today she has nowhere to turn unless she has money and bags of confidence. A union may well offer advice support and more importantly lobby to avoid such acts of discrimination. What could be wrong with that?

    Unions do not take the place of personal effort they simply provide a safety net for when the actions of employers take unfair advantage of an employee. It is sad that we should even contemplate their involvement but for long enough the lot of yacht crew has been under the custodianship of the captain who has absolutely no incentive save his or her own ethical standard to act in the interests of the crew.

    Crew turnover is the latest phrase that has the industry concerned if a union can promote better standards of treatment of crew and reduce turnover why not encourage them. Better that than wait for the &
    Posted by Mike French 07/06/2008 21:00:02

  • I highly doubt that not smiling was the only cause. Perhaps the gent was a bit negative and others got tired of hearing it and more importantly living with it. Negative attitudes are contagious and must be handled immediately or it will affect the entire yacht over time. Again, there must be more to the story. Not smiling can also mean the individual is serious about his job. I'll take that over someone who smiles like the Joker to cover up his or her incompetancies.
    Posted by captseakiss 29/05/2008 02:11:40

  • An engineer was fired from a boat this week because and I quote: "He didn't smile enough" - isn't this where a union would step in in? Seems like an injust reason to fire someone...presumably there would be T&C's that state the reasons allowed for dismal but even so...not smiling enough?
    Posted by The Contract Yachtie 20/05/2008 12:41:16

  • Drink up, have an accident, and no one, not even Nautilus UK will come to your rescue. Hmm, sounds like you don't like your career choice.
    Posted by captseakiss 17/05/2008 01:45:23

  • As a UK master joining a union is the only affordable way to protect my liability in the event of an accident. Nautilus UK provides legal representation to its members as part of the membership cost.

    I am not a moocher what ever that is, I thought it was a Sesame street character, nor a slacker but I value protection the protection a union such as Nautilus offers.

    Who protects crew from the subjective decisions of owners and captains? There is no arbiter in many cases and often no recourse for crew members who are wronged. In my experience the greatest mooching, I'm beginning to like the word, is done by the captains. Going to the bank, meeting, going to storage, interviewing crew and "captains Stuff" are known throughout the business as alternative words for mooching. That is if they have the time to take a break from whinging about the paperwork they have these days.

    Unfortunately the standard of management practice is under the guardianship of captains who have a vested interest in not looking after the interests of their employees. So it would seem that a union is exactly what the industry needs.
    Posted by Joeninety 16/05/2008 17:29:53

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