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Maritime Update: Union Contract Will be Upheld for Seafarers Unless Evidence of Unfairness

Bill Schwartz - 

In the case of Joyce v. Maersk Line handed down on December 4, 2017, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal (covering Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands) upheld the terms of union contracts for seafarers. In doing so, they noted their Court was in disagreement with every other circuit on this issue and they therefore reversed their prior decision on point.

The facts of the case were that James Joyce was a member of the Seafarers International Union. He signed “Articles of Agreement” with the shipping company Maersk Line Limited and agreed to serve as a bosun aboard the MAERSK OHIO for a three-month period in 2012. The Union and Maersk had reached a collective bargaining agreement that governed the terms of all unionized seafarers’ employment with Maersk. This collective bargaining agreement was incorporated by reference into the Articles of Agreement between Joyce and Maersk.

Not long after the MAERSK OHIO departed as scheduled from the Port of Newark, New Jersey, Joyce fell ill. He was examined onboard and diagnosed with kidney stones. That diagnosis was later confirmed at a hospital in Spain, and he was declared unfit for duty and repatriated to the United States. The collective bargaining agreement provided that if a seafarer was medically discharged prior to the conclusion of his contract, he was entitled to unearned wages for the remaining period of the contract. Overtime was not included in the definition of unearned wages. Joyce accordingly received only base pay as unearned wages for the time left on his contract after he was medically discharged.

Dissatisfied, Joyce filed a suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey wherein he alleged that the “portions of the [collective bargaining agreement] governing unearned wages … violated general maritime law[.]” Particularly, he claimed that he was owed overtime pay. The District Court disagreed and granted summary judgment to Maersk on the ground that, as a matter of law, given the collective bargaining agreement, Joyce was not entitled to overtime.

This was in contrast to a prior decision by the 3rd Circuit in Barnes v. Andover Co., L.P., 900 F.2d 630 (3d Cir. 1990), which held that it was “inconsistent…with the traditional doctrine of maintenance” to say that the rate in a union contract “is binding on a seaman who can show higher daily expenses.”

In reversing the Barnes decision, the Court concluded: “Today we stop swimming against the tide of opinion on an important question of maritime law. Following the lead of several of our sister circuits, we now hold that a union contract freely entered by a seafarer – a contract that includes rates of maintenance, cure, and unearned wages – will not be reviewed piecemeal by courts unless there is evidence of unfairness in the collective bargaining process.” The Court recognized the majority position taken by all the other federal circuit courts that the “modern reality” is unionized seafarers negotiate for comprehensive contracts. Unionization has produced a “well organized work force with sophisticated leaders who constantly press for better working conditions” and the need for judicially fashioned protection has “substantially lessened.”

In sum, unless the seaman can prove that there was unfairness in the collective bargaining process in reaching a union contract, the terms of that agreement will be upheld and not subject to piecemeal judicial review.

The full case can be found here.

If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or



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