Let Cruise Workers Off the Death Ships Now!

Crews Held Hostage as Virus Rages – Unionize Seafaring Workers!

Solidarity with the Trapped Seamen: We Demand Testing, Treatment, Housing, Union-Scale Wages and the Right to Repatriation!

The novel coronavirus pandemic has hit frontline workers around the world. First and foremost, many health and hospital workers who have heroically been treating patients with COVID-19 have themselves been stricken and more than 500 have died (Medscape, 21 April). Maritime workers, who are a key logistical link in the global capitalist economy, including the 1.2 million seamen in the shipping industry, as well as port workers, have also been hit hard.

Particularly vulnerable have been crews on giant cruise ships, not only deck hands and engine room workers but also hundreds of food service, cleaning and maintenance personnel and others. With up to 3,000 passengers and over 1,000 crew members crammed together in tight spaces, “social distancing” is impossible. The densely packed vessels act as incubators, greatly accelerating the transmission of COVID-19, turning these party ships into death ships.[1] In the case of the Diamond Princess, held in quarantine off Yokohama, Japan for 24 days, some 712 passengers and crew members became infected with the virus, and 14 died.

But this horrendous experience was not unique. At least 27 cruise ships have reported confirmed cases of coronavirus. In one case, the Holland America Lines Zaandam was stranded off southern Chile in mid-March and could find no port on the west coast of South America that would let it disembark. Four passengers died as it was waiting for permission to transit the Panama Canal; at least 1,400 symptom-free passengers were transferred to another cruise liner, the Rotterdam, which came out to bring supplies; and it took days of public pleas to get local and state authorities to allow the two ships to dock on April 2 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The horror story is not over. The 250 passengers and crew on the Zaandam with influenza-like symptoms were not allowed off, nor were any crew members, and the ship was sent back out to sea, as more and more on board fall ill. It’s not alone. After the cruise industry announced on March 13 that it was suspending operations, more than 250,000 passengers disembarked from 120 ships. But according to “No Sail Order” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of April 9 there were still 50 cruise ships off the U.S. East Coast with 47,800 crew members, and 45 cruise ships off the Gulf and West Coasts with 32,000 crew on board.

The remaining passengers and thousands of crew members are effectively imprisoned on the ghostly cruise ships circling off U.S. shores. Many have tested positive for the virus, but most have not even been tested. California’s governor Gavin Newsom, Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis and U.S. president Donald Trump are preventing the ships from docking. Clustered off Southern California there are 16 cruise liners, apparently awaiting chartered airplanes or vessels to take crews to their countries. By locking them on these ships the U.S. government, and Democratic and Republican politicians, are imposing a death sentence on many of these crew members.

We say: Everyone on board must be allowed passage down the gangway to be tested for this deadly disease. Anyone testing positive should be treated at hospitals. Those in the crew testing negative must be housed ashore and quarantined. Passengers can be housed, quarantined and flown home. The crews should be paid at U.S. standards by the shipowners while in U.S. waters. And all seamen have a right to be repatriated, which means waging a fight against the governments like that of India where the Hindu-chauvinist regime of Narendra Modi is preventing seafarers from going home.

The Nightmare Odyssey of the Grand Princess

In early and mid-March national and international media highlighted the infected Grand Princess cruise ship, whose home port is San Francisco. She sailed to the Mexican Riviera on February 11 and returned to the Bay Area on February 21. During that trip three passengers contracted the coronavirus. As one passenger was being rushed by ambulance to the hospital, Princess Lines was encouraging passengers to stay on for the infected ship’s next voyage to Hawaii, sailing that same day. Fifty to sixty did stay on, as some 2,500 new passengers boarded with a crew of over 1,100.

Longshore workers handled the ship’s mooring lines, the luggage, garbage and stores (food and supplies) at Pier 27, the SF passenger ship terminal. Neither passengers, the crew nor the longshore workers were aware of the catastrophe that they were about to encounter. After visiting several of the Hawaiian Islands, the Grand Princess set sail February 29 for the Mexican Riviera. The crew and passengers were kept in the dark about infected passengers from the previous trip even after news media had announced on March 4 that the passenger from the previous trip had died of complications from the virus, the first death from it in California.

After that news broke, passengers were told to stay in their staterooms and that crew-to-passenger contact would be kept to a minimum. Cruise company officials cancelled the Mexico destination and ordered an abrupt course change heading for San Francisco. One crew member stated: “As I looked around the ship and realized this virus could have been spreading since 11th Feb, I became anxious. Nervous for passengers and crew who had no idea” (“The Diary of a Grand Princess Crew Member as the Coronavirus Spread on the Ship,” New Yorker, 17 March).

Governor Newsom ordered the ship to stay at sea outside the Golden Gate until all passengers and crew could be tested for the coronavirus. Never happened. On March 5, an Air National Guard helicopter dropped only 46 test kits for the 3,700 people on board, 2,600 passengers and 1,100 crew. White House coronavirus task force chief and vice president Mike Pence announced on TV the next day that 19 crew and 2 passengers had tested positive. The deadly disease was going viral in the confined area of the Grand Princess. Passengers started calling their voyage the “Corona Cruise.”

Newsom did not allow the ship to dock at the usual San Francisco passenger ship terminals, and instead directed it to Berth 20 in the busy cargo port of Oakland across the Bay. Many noted that this was because Oakland is poorer and blacker than San Francisco. An unused and isolated terminal like Pier 96 in San Francisco could have been designated. When she finally docked in Oakland March 9, all of the ship’s passengers and some crew were disembarked and sent to Travis Air Force base and other military bases to be quarantined and voluntarily tested.

At Travis passengers were told by federal officials that if they were tested it would delay their going home. So only one-third of the 858 passengers agreed to be tested. An astounding 103 of the 283 tested were positive. Some testing positive were treated, however crew members testing positive and asymptomatic (showing no signs) were ordered back on the ship, contradicting the CDC’s statement that “persons with asymptomatic COVID-19 can spread the virus.”

Longshore and other port workers together with Filipino and Indian community activists gathered at the International Maritime Center in the Port of Oakland at a press conference on March 13 to raise a hue and cry over the confinement of the stranded crew on the virus-stricken Grand Princess. Maritime worker activist Jack Heyman, a retired member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, emphasized: “You are building a petri dish by quarantining the crew on the ship. This is more than a problem, this is a crisis.” He added: “The rest of the crew needs to be tested, they need to be given medical treatment now.”

Robert Irminger of the Inland Boatman’s Union (IBU) noted that among the crew were 600 Filipinos as well as many Indians, Koreans, Sri Lankans and Italians. He emphasized that it was necessary to “to be able to repatriate them to their home countries.” ILWU Local 10 president Trent Willis and Local 34 vice president Ricky Cox slammed the safety conditions in the port, insisting that all equipment had to be cleaned. Longshore workers said they have never been trained in the safe handling of the virus-contaminated garbage being discharged off the ship, or handling of the passengers’ luggage. They have good reason for concern: two longshore workers had just died in the port in the last two months from industrial accidents.

Declaring solidarity with the trapped seamen, longshore workers successfully took job action to protect their safety and that of the community, insisting that the garbage be removed by a barge and taken to an incinerator. But Governor Newsom didn’t give a damn about the crew, ordering the ship with 641 workers still on board to anchor in the Bay. This was a catastrophe in the making, and on March 21, the ship’s second electronics officer, Restituto “Jun” Umabi Jr., was rushed ashore on a Coast Guard Med Evac boat. On April 3, “Jun” Umabi was the first crew member to die from complications of the COVID-19 infection.

Several passengers and crew members had died by now. Carnival Corporation, of which Beverly Hills-based Princess Cruises is a subsidiary, is still not being transparent on the number of passengers and crew infected, hospitalized and dead from complications of the coronavirus contracted on its ships. A group of passengers has sued Princess Cruises in federal court, charging that the company “chose to place profits over people, including the safety of their passengers, crew and the general public.” The lawsuit charges the company manifested “utter failure to provide even a modicum of care” (San Jose Mercury, 9 April).

Carnival-owned ships have effectively spread the virus around the world. On March 8, shortly before the World Health Organization declared a coronavirus pandemic, the Ruby Princess set sail from Sydney, Australia with 2,700 passengers and 1,100 crew members for a two-week cruise around New Zealand. But after it was hurriedly called back to port a week later, the disembarking passengers spread the virus around Australia. So far at least there have been 662 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from the Ruby Princess and 21 dead. But the crew of 1,000 is still confined on board, with 200 crew members showing flu-like symptoms.

This catastrophe is not limited to one mega corporation. Contaminated passenger ships, oil tankers, container ships and Navy vessels are plying all oceans. Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt was fired when his letter warning of the danger of the spread of the virus on the ship was made public. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly was forced to resign for firing and attacking the captain after the crew responded on the deck of the ship with a massive, boisterous demonstration of support for the captain. One sailor has already died from the disease.

Love Boat Owners Fly “Flags of Convenience,” Pay Poverty Wages and No Taxes

The chairman of Miami-based Carnival Corporation, Micky Arison, owns 50% of the cruise ship industry, including Princess Cruises,[2] Holland America, P&O and Cunard, among others. Arison, an Israeli American billionaire, is one of the world’s richest men and a good friend and former business associate of Donald Trump.[3] He has donated to both Republican and Democratic parties, which have allowed him to virtually escape paying U.S. taxes (Forbes, 16 February 2013). Even former senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), scion of one of America’s wealthiest dynasties, hypocritically decried Arison’s benefiting from the use of resources of some 40 federal agencies.

The $2 trillion coronavirus crisis stimulus package did not include any money for the cruise ship companies, since they are not U.S. corporations. But Trump declared the industry a “prime candidate” for U.S. aid, and the White House tried to carve out an exception for it. Trump also announced that his pal Arison is willing to offer his ships as hospitals. Arison pulled this stunt before, offering his ships for relief worker housing after hurricanes for a “special price” of some $300 million dollars. (Meanwhile, his ships Carnival Breeze, Carnival Vista and Caribbean Fantasy failed sanitation inspections by the U.S. Public Health Inspection division of the CDC.)

Just like the 2007-09 financial crisis, the “too big to fail” capitalists will get the lion’s share of government aid while workers get shafted. Meanwhile cruise ship crew members are being effectively imprisoned, infected and dying on cruise ships.

The major cruise lines and their ships all have non-U.S. registries (Carnival in Panama, Royal Caribbean in Liberia, Norwegian in Bermuda). This is typical for the entire shipping industry. Today most of the world’s trade is carried on such “flag of convenience” bottoms, using highly exploited workers from poor semi-colonial countries. The capitalist media may once in a while decry scofflaws who hide offshore to avoid paying taxes or violating environmental laws, but you won’t see exposés of owners using “flags of convenience” to bust unions or escape from unions which seek to provide seamen with good wages, safe working conditions and benefits.

This practice goes back to the post-World War II Marshall Plan, a linchpin of the anti-Soviet Cold War, which opened the floodgate for American capitalists to change their flags and ship registry to countries like Greece. Maritime unions didn’t wage an international organizing drive then because they were in the midst of a “red purge,” mainly in the CIO unions, while the AFL played a key role in busting communist-led unions in Europe. This was engineered by operatives like ex-CPer Jay Lovestone who became a virulent anti-communist and U.S. spy (first OSS, then CIA) Irving Brown. Meanwhile, flag-waving labor bureaucrats helped set U.S. workers against those of other nations, pushing “Buy American” chauvinism.

Currently, the cruise corporations say that many of their ships have “contracts” with the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). But these are not union contracts negotiated and voted by the seafarers. They are low-wage, substandard contracts set by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO), a tripartite body composed of employers, labor and governments – decidedly not a workers organization. The ITF, based in London, has acted like a company union, misusing the muscle of dockworkers and maritime unions to get sweetheart contracts with shipowners.

An inspiring four-year dockers struggle in Liverpool, England, lasting from 1995 to 1999, rekindled a flame of international labor solidarity, including in the United States.[4] But the class-collaborationist ITF refused to support the Liverpool dockers because they violated Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws, enforced later by “New Labour” prime minister Tony Blair. The most militant unions in that struggle, which went ended in defeat, went on to organize the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), which recently issued a solidarity statement for the crew of the Grand Princess.

The ITF, which has a contract with the Grand Princess through an Italian maritime union, has called for the crew to be repatriated. Yet at the same time it extended their contracts, increasing the maximum tour of service, as seafarers desperately want to get off and go home. The ITF also covered for Princess Lines by claiming that there was only “speculation that some passengers and crew had tested positive for COVID-19” when it was refused permission to dock in San Francisco (Seafarers, 19 March). Yet by March 5, TV reports said that 21 on board had tested positive.

Absurdly, the ITF is calling on governments of “flag of convenience” (FOC) states like Bermuda and the Bahamas to protect seafarers against billionaire shipowners like Arison in Florida! The only island in the Caribbean to offer safe haven to a passenger ship in distress (MS Braemar) was Cuba, a country frequently pilloried, along with China, by the anti-communist ITF. And on March 19, the ITF sent a joint letter with the International Chamber of Shipping (representing the owners) calling to “to keep supply chains open and maritime trade and transport moving,” and to that end, “emergency health protocols” should be “treated with pragmatism and understanding” – i.e., ignored.

Without unions to represent ships’ crews directly, they have no collective power. On union ships there are regular meetings at sea to decide on health and safety, working conditions, food and wage beefs. FOC ships, on the other hand, often break environmental laws like dumping over the side oil from the bilges, garbage and various loose materials. Most workers on the cruise ships live in cramped quarters with four bunks, and in smaller ships up to 12 bunks in a single bay on the B deck below the waterline. Most seafarers come from developing countries and are highly exploited wage slaves. An able-bodied (AB) seaman under ITF contract earns a base salary of $1,100 a month.

By comparison the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP) AB earns $4,174 a month, plus overtime. One of the key demands from community groups which are supporting the cruise crews, along with those related to paramount health issues, is for Carnival to continue to pay its workers through the pandemic and repatriate them to their home country. Maritime unions should support such demands and go further to initiate an organizing drive on FOC vessels, demanding that U.S. union wage scales apply to all ships in U.S. ports. Crews that are ready to unionize must be able to count on longshore workers for solidarity actions. No space for “America Firsters” here.

In short, this pandemic offers the organized working class the opportunity to change this one-sided class war, to build a class-struggle leadership in the trade unions with an internationalist, socialist perspective. The coronavirus pandemic exposes the sheer inability of capitalism to deal with this deadly threat in a scientific, humane, egalitarian and centralized manner. COVID-19 increasingly strikes the most vulnerable, i.e. the poor, the elderly, the sick, overwhelmingly the working class and oppressed minorities.

What’s needed is a socialized medical system eliminating the profit motive, providing free health care for all. This means expropriating all private hospitals, clinics and pharmaceutical companies (including research and development), and instituting workers control led by qualified medical personnel in all facilities. Joining together with medical workers from China and Cuba to Europe and Latin America, what’s required to combat COVID-19 is an internationally coordinated, scientifically based effort to contain, mitigate and suppress the contagion by testing, contact tracking and treatment, while developing medicines and a vaccine, not Trump’s snake oil prescriptions. Amid the capitalist chaos today, thousands are dying.

The U.S. stands alone in the industrialized world without a national health system. Both Trump and Biden oppose national health insurance, much less socialized health care. But a real response to the crisis must deal with the economic devastation as well. The coronavirus depression has already begun, with 22 million new unemployment claims and over 30 million left jobless in the space of one month. Class-conscious workers should take up demands for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay (“30 for 40”) and drastically increasing the minimum wage ($25 per hour or higher), whatever it takes to provide jobs for all and end mass poverty.

That, of course, points to the need for a socialized planned economy which can only come about through international socialist revolution. That is counterposed from top to bottom to the phony “political revolution” of Bernie Sanders and his reformist cheerleaders, which ends up backing a Joe Biden who wants to mobilize the military to lock down the country and to prepare for war on China. The answer is not to replace capitalist Republicans with capitalist Democrats – or to organize a new populist capitalist party – but to undertake the difficult but urgent task of building an internationalist, revolutionary workers party fighting for a workers government.

Trump wants to bail out the cruise industry. Hell no! The cutthroat shipping bosses paying poverty wages while spreading coronavirus around the world should be expropriated, lock, stock and barrel, without a dime of compensation, along with banks who finance them, the hotel chains and the rest. Instead, the economy should be geared to fulfill social needs for all. Passenger ships could be converted to floating hostels to serve the homeless who are now living on the streets, under bridges and highway overpasses and in subways.

Of course, to achieve this revolution would require replacing the moribund leadership of the trade-union movement with class-struggle leadership, something we have not seen in many decades in this country. As Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary socialist leader of the German workers during the carnage of WWI, stated a century ago, in 1916: “”Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” She spoke these prescient words before being assassinated in January 1919 by the social-democratic government of Ebert and Scheidemann who were hell-bent to stop the German workers revolution.

Socialism or barbarism. Right now we are staring the barbarism in the face, as crews on death ships[5] are condemned to circle endlessly at sea as disease spreads on board, as dozens of refrigerated trailers line up at hospitals in New York City to serve as temporary morgues. We are in the middle of a plague, like the 1918 influenza pandemic that infected 500 million people and left 50 million dead. The answer, then and now, is revolutionary struggle to combat the social plagues that the coronavirus feeds off. To overthrow the capitalist system of death and destruction, we need to put the working class at the helm.

Jack Heyman, a retired longshoreman, was a maritime worker for 40 years, first as a seaman in the National Maritime Union where he was an organizer for the class-struggle opposition group the Militant-Solidarity Caucus and received a commendation for saving the life of a Filipino-American seaman on a burning barge in New York harbor. Later he became an ILWU longshoreman in Oakland, CA. Contact him at: jackheyman@comcast.net.

Jan Norden is the editor of The Internationalist and a leading member of the Internationalist Group.


1) Almost none of the cruise ships have HEPA air filtration systems, such as are in use on newer airplanes, which with ultraviolent light can destroy many viruses and bacteria. As a result, air quality on these ships has been described as “20 times worse than in the busy city centres of some port cities” (Telegraph [London], 1 February 2017).

2) Its Pacific Princess cruise liner was featured in the television series, The Love Boat.

3) Carnival helped sponsor Trump’s “reality TV show” The Apprentice for a number of years.

4) In 1997 ILWU members and labor activists in the SF Bay Area picketed the scab ship Neptune Jade carrying cargo from the union-busting Mersey Dock and Harbor Company. See “ILWU: Defense Victory in Neptune Jade Picket Case,” The Internationalist No. 7, April-May 1999.

5) The Death Ship is the title of a book by the mysterious German leftist author B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, about merchant seamen who lack citizenship papers and can’t find legal residence or employment anywhere, like millions of undocumented immigrants today.

This first appeared in the Internationalist.