Friday, August 26, 2011

National Labor Relations Board Stepping In Boathouse Restaurant Fight

Employees of the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park are striking over union recognition. The National Labor Relations Board is expected to issue a complaint accusing the restaurant of firing some workers for supporting the union. (Photo: Ty Cacek/The New York Times)


The strike at the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park has lasted more than two weeks, with 60 waiters, cooks and dishwashers picketing, chanting and drumming outside day after day. But now the strikers are getting some long-awaited outside support, according to the New York Times.

he National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union matters, plans to issue a far-reaching legal complaint against the restaurant, federal officials and union leaders say. The complaint would accuse the Boathouse of illegally threatening and questioning workers, as well as firing and otherwise punishing more than 15 workers for supporting the union.

The labor board has also said, according to these officials, that it plans to seek an unusual judicial order to require the Boathouse to enter contract negotiations with the union, even though no election has been held to determine whether the restaurant’s 140 workers want to unionize.

The labor board seeks such orders only in the rare instances when it concludes that an employer’s illegal actions are so widespread and egregious that they would prevent a fair unionization vote from being held.

Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trades Council, the union that many of the Boathouse workers have been seeking to join, said: “The labor board is saying to the restaurant’s owner and his agents that you, through fear, intimidation, firings, surveillance and threats, have destroyed the laboratory conditions necessary for a fair and clean election. And your behavior has been so bad we can’t ever re-establish those conditions.”

Robert Barletta, a spokesman for the Boathouse, said, “We deny all the allegations.” He declined to comment on the board’s plan to seek an order requiring the Boathouse’s owner to negotiate with the union.

Officials of the Boathouse, the union and the labor board all acknowledged that representatives from the restaurant, which is open despite the strike, will meet with the board’s deputy general counsel next Tuesday to discuss the planned complaint, which the restaurant may head off by offering enough concessions to settle the charges.

But Dan Silverman, a lawyer for the union and the former director of the labor board’s regional office in Manhattan, said: “This is not going to settle unless the Boathouse agrees to negotiate a contract with the union. Reinstating the fired workers isn’t going to be enough.”

Mr. Ward said more than 70 percent of the restaurant’s workers signed cards last winter saying they wanted to join his union. He said the union gave those cards to the labor board in January to request a unionization election, but none has been conducted because of litigation and because the board concluded that conditions were not right for an election.

Mr. Barletta, the Boathouse spokesman, said on Thursday that 70 percent of the restaurant’s current employees — excluding those on strike and those fired — recently signed a petition saying they did not want to unionize. He said that petition had been sent to the labor board and Mr. Ward.

John Turchiano, a union spokesman, said managers might have pressured workers to sign that petition. “Given their history, it’s pretty clear how they ended up getting those signatures,” he said.

After the workers walked out at lunchtime on Aug. 9, the restaurant issued a statement saying the union had organized “one publicity stunt after another” and was using “yet another vindictive tactic” against the Boathouse’s owner, Dean J. Poll.

The dispute has become intertwined with the union’s battle with Mr. Poll over a license he won to run Tavern on the Green, also in Central Park. Mr. Poll never reopened Tavern after he was unable to reach a contract with Mr. Ward’s union, which represented the 400 Tavern workers under the previous licensee, Warner LeRoy.

Christopher Skaggs, a waiter at the Boathouse for five years, said, “For them to say we’re out here on strike as a vendetta because of what went on at Tavern is pretty insulting to us. We’re out here to fight for a better work environment. We shouldn’t have to work in a place where we’re mistreated.”

Numerous workers complained of low wages and of not receiving health coverage.

Marie Agniel, another waiter, complained of a capricious management style. “I’ve worked here for six years, and every day I walk in and I don’t know whether I’m going to be fired,” she said

Ms. Agniel is one of six workers who have filed sexual harassment complaints. Mr. Barletta said the Boathouse “denies all the allegations about harassment.”

Read More:

New York Times - August 25, 2011 - By Steven Greenhouse

Sign of the Times. Union illustration Depicting Dean Poll.

Pressure mounted Friday on restaurateur Dean Poll to resolve a bitter, longstanding dispute with the hotel workers union after the National Labor Relations Board decided to authorize a wide-ranging complaint accusing the Central Park Boathouse of serious labor violations, according to Crain's New York Business.

The labor board chose to authorize the complaint, which will allege that Boathouse management threatened and fired workers—creating an atmosphere that makes a fair union election impossible—but it is holding off on issuing the complaint because the Boathouse asked for reconsideration of the decision, said David Leach, acting regional attorney at the board.

The violations were so egregious, according to Mr. Leach, that the board is seeking an unusual order that would compel the Boathouse to bargain with the Hotel and Motel Trades Council even without an election.

“Dean Poll's contract with the city requires him to follow all city, state, and federal laws–and the National Labor Relations Board is saying pretty clearly he is not," said Josh Gold, political director for the union. "The work environment at the Boathouse has become so toxic and the violations are so pervasive that extraordinary measures are now needed to protect basic worker rights.”

Boathouse attorneys are scheduled to present their case to board officials in Washington on Wednesday. News of the NLRB's move was first reported Friday in The New York Times.

“Any recommendation by the board would not be wholly informed, because the Boathouse had not yet been afforded its right to address key board officials in Washington to refute the allegations made by the union,” a spokesman for Mr. Poll said. “This meeting is the opportunity for the Boathouse to present its case, and no decision will be rendered until those facts have been considered.”

But before then, Boathouse officials will engage in settlement talks Monday and Tuesday with the union in the hope of bringing to an end a fight that began at Tavern on the Green and that has dragged on since 2009, sources said.

The decision to authorize a complaint greatly increases the union's leverage, as pressure will mount on the city to step in if Mr. Poll does not settle. Workers at the Boathouse went on strike earlier this month to protest against the Boathouse's actions, and the union has engaged in an extensive publicity campaign aimed at convincing the city to cancel Mr. Poll's contract.

All along, city officials have said it would be improper to make any moves until the charges have been fully adjudicated, but now with the NLRB prepared to act, it's going to feel pressure to change its stance.

Already, Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito issued a strongly-worded statement saying that the “Parks Department can no longer remain silent in this matter.” Ms. Mark-Viverito, who chairs the council's Parks & Recreation Committee, said that if Mr. Poll does not settle with the NLRB, “the city should immediately terminate his contract.” She added that officials “cannot sit idly by and continue to allow an employer operating on city-owned land to willingly and willfully violate workers' rights.”

A Parks Department spokeswoman referred to an earlier statement that “the city is not party to this disagreement.” She said Mr. Poll has met all his obligations to the city. But at a March City Council hearing, First Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh told Ms. Mark-Viverito that “all concessionaries are required to conform with all federal and state laws, including federal and state labor laws,” according to a transcript.

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred to a July letter by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer saying it would “be imprudent and premature” to act until the legal process runs its course.

Back at Tavern on the Green, at the outset of the battle, the two sides engaged in a contentious tug-of-war over a contract for 400 workers. Their inability to reach an agreement ultimately resulted in the closure of the well-known restaurant at the start of 2010. As a way to exert pressure during the Tavern talks, the union began organizing workers at the Boathouse. While the campaign started as a negotiating tactic, it became a high priority for the union when workers were allegedly dismissed for backing the effort.

Ironically, settlement talks at the Boathouse could end up giving new life to Tavern on the Green. It's possible the union could try to insert Tavern into the talks, sources said, bringing the dispute full circle.

Read More:

National Labor Relations Board decides to authorize a wide-ranging complaint accusing manager of famed Central Park eatery of serious violations; Tavern redux possible.
Crain's New York Business - August 26, 2011 - By Daniel Massey

A Walk In The Park - August 9, 2011

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