Central Park Boathouse is the site of a worker walkout Tuesday. (Photos: Lisa Fickenscher)
In the latest twist in a seemingly never-ending battle between hotel union leader Peter Ward and restaurateur Dean Poll, several dozen workers at the Central Park Boathouse walked off their jobs Tuesday afternoon to protest alleged labor violations by the eatery's management,
They displayed signs at each of the eatery's entrances and were joined by some workers who had been fired by Mr. Poll.
The restaurant continued to serve customers after the noon walkout, although the dining room was largely empty. Some potential patrons approached the boathouse but turned away upon encountering the approximately 45 protesters.
The strike is meant to pressure city officials to intervene and force Mr. Poll to negotiate with the union, or to get the city to cancel his contract with the Parks Department, which adds more than $3 million a year to the city's coffers. In a statement, Mr. Ward emphasized that the alleged violations occurred “on city property.”
The National Labor Relations Board is investigating 25 charges brought on behalf of the workers by the union. The workers allege that managers interrogated employees about their union activity and threatened to close the restaurant if the drive succeeded. The most serious of the charges contends that 14 employees were fired in retaliation for their support of the union.
The bulk of the charges have been referred from the labor board's Manhattan office to its Division of Advice in Washington for an ultimate ruling, a source close to the labor board said. Among the issues being decided upon is whether the board will issue an injunction against the Boathouse, which could force it to hire back the workers, among other stipulations, the source said.
One such worker at the strike, Fancisco Lavayen, said he was fired on Jan. 25 “for supporting the union.” Mr. Lavayen worked at Boathouse banquets and as a bartender. He does not have a job currently, he said, but has been volunteering at the union.
Another worker, Juan Villalba, walked off his job today as a cashier and food worker at the Boathouse's Express Café because he wants “better management and more benefits,” he said, adding that he expected to strike “for as long as it takes.”
There were even union supporters in boats that came right up to the outdoor dining room overlooking the lake and waving signs at the few seated patrons that said: “Dean Poll, respect workers,” and “Shame on you.”
A reporter asked for Mr. Poll but was told by managers that he was not present.
Mr. Poll has contended firing the workers, who were part of his banquet staff, was a business decision that was in the works long before the union started organizing workers at the Boathouse. His lawyer, David Weissman of Reed Smith, has argued that the charges are unfounded and will be dismissed. He says they are part of an attempt by Mr. Ward to retaliate against Mr. Poll for failed negotiations at his other fabled Central Park restaurant, Tavern on the Green.
In a statement, Mr. Weissman said, "The workers who walked out today represent a small percentage of the approximately 140 men and women who are employed at the Central Park Boathouse. While The Boathouse management respects the employees who came to work and walked off the job, this walkout is yet another vindictive tactic by Hotel Trades Council President Peter Ward, who wrongly blames Dean Poll for the fact that Tavern on the Green remains closed."
The union said 65 of the restaurant's 140 workers participated in the strike, including 20 who were not scheduled to work Tuesday afternoon.
The dispute between Mr. Poll and Mr. Ward's Hotel and Motel Trades Council actually started at Tavern, where the two sides engaged in a contentious tug-of-war last year over a contract for 400 workers. Their inability to reach an agreement ultimately resulted in the closure of the well-known restaurant. 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.
The Bloomberg administration has so far steered clear of the controversy. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer wrote to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe in June, urging him to cancel the Boathouse contract because of the allegations of intimidation and retaliation. Mr. Benepe wrote back last month saying it would “be imprudent and premature” to act on the charges until they are fully adjudicated.
“At such a time as the issues referred to in your letter are more fully explored and we have the benefit of decisions by the appropriate forums, we will take action appropriate to the situation,” Mr. Benepe wrote.
"The city is not party to this disagreement," the parks department said, in a statement. "[Mr. Poll] has met all of his obligations to the city under the agreement."
It seems clear that the union is mounting a large campaign. There were union supporters and staffers fanning out throughout the park wearing yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “Dump Dean Poll,” and handing out a pamphlet with the same message expressed in 20 different languages. A giant inflatable rat was also stationed at the entrance to the park at West 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
A spokesman for the union, John Turchiano, who was at the strike, said, “We will be here every day.”
"Keep Our Park Clean, Dump Dirty Dean." Hundreds rallied in Central Park on April 21 to protest Parks Department concessionaire Dean Poll's treatment of workers at the Loeb Memorial Boathouse restaurant. Workers claim they have been fired illegally from the famed eatery. The workers have been trying to unionize for a year. The city’s contract with Mr. Poll extends until Dec. 31, 2021. A bevy of elected officials came out in support of the pro-union rally. Photo: © Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates (Click on image to enlarge)
Hotel union says dozens of workers at the famed eatery walked off their jobs Tuesday to protest restaurant's alleged labor violations. The Boathouse pays the city some $3 million a year.
Crain's New York
- August 9, 2011 - By Daniel Massey
A Walk In The Park - April 22, 2011