Rolling the union on

A cruise ship worker describes how he drew on previous union experience to organize a successful collective action to win shore leave.

It’s been over five years since Stardust Family United’s uprising and my participation in it got me fired from Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square, NYC. Only three weeks later, my partner and I packed up our midtown studio and bid farewell to the city of our dreams.

We’d both worked at Stardust for about six years. The selling point of being a singing waiter in Manhattan, besides the good pay, was the flexibility it allowed us. We were able to take time off to audition for films and musicals and could even take leave for long periods to work in theatre across the country or on cruise ships around the world. It was during this time that I first began singing on cruise ships.

As a singer, cruise ship gigs are incredibly easy — generally. At most, lead singers work for about two to three hours per day, sometimes less. The pay is good; housing, meals and medical services are provided at no cost; and the opportunity to travel and visit ports around the world is a huge added benefit. Pre-pandemic, singers and dancers were pretty much given free rein in ports and on the ships. While many crew members work long hours, have limited time ashore and are required to remain in crew-area living quarters when not on duty, cast members work short hours, only at night, have full port-day privileges, and can also mingle and dine in passenger areas.

When I joined my first ship post-pandemic, I knew that certain new health protocols would be in place and that the nature of living onboard would be different, and I was prepared for that. However, after the first few months rolled by, my cast and I observed regulations on land relaxing and colleagues on other ships being allowed shore leave while in ports. We had not been awarded that luxury and we were feeling cooped up. We’d all been wearing masks religiously in all areas of the ship. We were all vaccinated and boosted.  We each had weekly COVID-19 tests performed. We watched as passengers came and went in ports, and we wondered what good reason there was for us not being allowed to go ashore. It had been many months and we were frustrated. Agitated. 

As I began to speak with other crew members onboard, I realized that almost everyone was agitated. And then I remembered the IWW and the process the singing waiters used to organize SFU in 2016. One of the first steps in the process was to determine who else was agitated and how agitated they were. So I decided to use this same technique onboard.

We have over 700 crew members, from about 70 different countries, so I decided to speak to several different people from different departments and nationalities to get a feel for the overall morale of the crew. It didn’t take long to realize that morale was low, and people felt hopeless.

Many of my coworkers come from countries that don’t adhere to the same fair labor practices that have become ingrained into life in the Western world. They are the breadwinners for their extended families back home and I wanted to be sure that I did not jeopardize their employment in any way. At sea, we are under maritime law. So the labor laws of the USA don’t pertain. Basically, any of us can be fired for any reason at any time.

I learned that the fleet had announced that shore leave would begin being granted for crew on February 2nd, yet it was now February 21st and we were still told that we were not allowed off the ship while in port. 

The next day, on February 22nd, we were expecting to finally be allowed shore leave in Nassau, Bahamas, since friends of ours from another ship in the fleet had been allowed off the previous day in the same port. But as morning came, an announcement was made telling us that shore leave would not be granted. It was a breaking point and many of the crew members I’d been in contact with, and whom I’d told of my plan of organizing, sought me out. They wanted to move, even though we had not had a single meeting.

So I called an impromptu meeting and we discussed our options. I must admit, I’d forgotten many of the IWW organizing techniques, and I knew it would be skipping steps to march on the boss already, but I was feeling so much pressure from the others, that I agreed that we should ask for a meeting with our ship’s HR manager.

Eight people agreed to take part in the march and we all crammed into the HR office and I spoke for everyone. I basically told him that we were a small sampling of a larger group of crew members who had come together to demand shore leave. I told him about SFU, and I told him I understood that the company is not bound by the same regulations as companies registered in the US. I asked why arrangements for us to go ashore that day had not been made and I expressed my group’s willingness to take collective action of some kind if we were not given shore leave soon.  Without threatening or ultimatums, I attempted to tell him that the crew was agitated and needed to be heard and understood or we would be forced to take some kind of collective action. To my surprise, he was very receptive. He gave a thousand excuses that seemed to make no logical sense, but he did seem to care and wanted to please us. He said something like, “I wish you would take action, because I agree it is a terrible situation to be in.” He also said he did not foresee shore leave for crew anytime soon.

We left the HR office feeling defeated but heard. It wasn’t two hours later that I was called into the office of my main bosses. I was trembling when I went in, and I feared I would be fired on the spot. Memories of being fired and accused of theft at Stardust began to fill my consciousness and I felt regretful.  But as I sat with my superiors and explained my intentions and my frustrations, the fear subsided. That said, I was told that the higher-ups in the company had been made aware of the situation and that they may be displeased with me. To me, this meant that my firing could still be a possibility. Alas, it has been two months now and I am still here, so fingers crossed.

That evening, an announcement was made that in a couple days, a tour for the crew was to be arranged in one of our ports. We have had shore leave ever since.

No one has ever given me credit, nor do I want any. I was so shaken by the experience that I vowed to stay under the radar for a while. One of my biggest challenges in life is resisting the urge to speak up and fight against every perceived injustice. But I am up for that challenge and plan on staying tight-lipped.

In hindsight, I think I should have taken more caution during the march upon the boss. A friend of mine, the union organizer who guided SFU, has since reminded me that in order to paint a broader target, I should have made myself less visible, by asking everyone at that first meeting of eight to speak and air grievances. By taking that all on myself, I clearly identified myself as the leader.

Despite revealing myself, our little uprising seems to have been effective. I think that is the big takeaway from this situation. We feel empowered and we feel we fought for our rights and that we won. And now we are enjoying going off the ship and laying on the beach once again.