Should Yacht Workers Unionize?

15 May 2008 By 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).