Masters and Commanders

A cruise is a great way to take a break as long as you're not belowdecks

Brady admits he's left with few tools to convince the cruise lines to adopt labor agreements. But he maintains pressure on Carnival and Disney through workers' compensation lawsuits. The union represented a man who was struck on the head by a 75-pound bag of rice and a woman whose foot was crushed by a box of frozen steaks.

Injuries occur frequently aboard cruise ships and workers must often fight for even basic compensation. An attractive Eastern European woman with a scar over her cheekbone waited by a fax machine inside a convenience store in Galveston several weeks ago, trying to reach her lawyer. An assistant cabin steward on the Carnival Elation, she was delivering a full luggage cart to the crew area in October when it caught on a metal threshold, toppled and pinned her against a door. A metal part on the cart gashed her cheek.

The cruise line paid for the necessary surgery, she says, but offered her no other compensation for her injury beyond a possible promotion to a higher position. She lit another cigarette. "I told them, 'Come on, this is the 21st century, an American company, and this happens like that?' "

Staffers like these dance instructors are among a 
handful who regularly catch sun and sea breezes on 
the top deck.
Staffers like these dance instructors are among a handful who regularly catch sun and sea breezes on the top deck.
Getting stiffed is a regular part of the job for cabin 
stewards, who work 70 hours a week.
Getting stiffed is a regular part of the job for cabin stewards, who work 70 hours a week.

Although the ITF advocates for injured crew members, contracts signed between the union and cruise lines offer hurt workers limited guarantees for compensation. After a boiler exploded on the unionized SS Norway cruise ship this spring in Miami, killing eight men and injuring more than a dozen others, workers and relatives of the dead turned down an $8.5 million out-of-court settlement offered by the company. A federal judge later removed cases filed against the company to the Philippines, where awards for death at sea are capped at $50,000 per worker.

"Why? Why? Oh, my God!" the wife of a deceased worker told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel upon learning of the decision. "How can I survive? How can we start a new life if we only get a small amount of money?"

HISD schoolteacher Lora Burney has taken care of business by the last day of the cruise and sits by a window in a sparkly black evening dress, waiting for dinner. She paid the suggested tips for her waiter, assistant waiter and steward yesterday, but she thinks the recommended gratuity for cabin stewards -- $3.50, per person, per day -- could sometimes be too high. Her son and daughter share a cabin and she suggested they reduce the tip. "I told them that I thought it would be excessive for the pair to pay the full amount when they are cleaning the same room," she says. "I don't know how to say it. I thought they could probably pay less."

Getting stiffed is a regular part of the job for cabin steward Brown, who chats while leaning against the open door of his utility room. A cabin steward aboard the Carnival Celebration says half the guests typically skimp on tips. Brown's income also varies widely, though he shies away from citing numbers. "It's like many things, sometimes up, sometimes down," he says as the hull rocks and swings the hallway door against him. "It's like a ship."

Before the dessert course at dinner, the kitchen crew delivers a final serenade. Peppered with compliments to the guests and parting pleasantries, it sounds like it was written by a hack somewhere in Royal Caribbean's public relations department in Miami. The song makes Verdi feel like he's at a rally for his country's recently deposed dictator; he stands stone-faced among his singing co-workers and neither claps nor smiles. "It would be like applauding [him]," he says. "…It's like a hypocrisy."

The South African waitress, Thomas, sings despite her job's unpleasantness. There are, after all, tips at stake.

Tim Molloy, one of her dinner guests for the week, wears a Hawaiian shirt to breakfast the next morning, though in a few minutes he will walk down the frigid gangway to Galveston and wrap himself in a jacket. A curt waitress with sharply plucked eyebrows serves his daughter a sugar-crusted doughnut, quite possibly fried by Verdi the night before. Molloy and his wife, Debby, seem slightly nostalgic for the smiling Thomas, who one night bravely dissuaded them from ordering the lamb, which she deemed too dry. But they didn't like Thomas's Lithuanian assistant, who spoke poor English. So Tim gave the dining room service a "poor" on his survey. "I wrote in my critique, I said, 'Service and food took a bit of a hit on this cruise,' " he says.

Tim's rating virtually ensures Thomas will lose $300 next week. The Molloys probably don't understand how their comments will affect Thomas, but they do know the service on Carnival's Holland America line a few years ago was much better. "They were so much more attentive," Debby says. "And they were just more engaging."

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