The best way to find the Boathouse restaurant in the middle of Central Park is to follow the sounds of the beating drums. On a recent Monday afternoon, they drowned out even the whistles and catcalls of the protesters gathered in front of the restaurant. Out of earshot, at the park entrances, striking workers and organizers with the Hotel Trades Council passed out maps showing alternative eating spots in the park’s 843 acres. The back of the map contained a long list of alleged affronts by the management of the Boathouse, including turning a blind eye toward sexual harassment, firing workers who tried to unionize and withholding money owed to the city. The front of the map showed a cartoon bandit, with a six shooter in one hand and a bag of money in the other, and the words: “Dump Dean.”
Dean is Dean Poll, the scion of a Long Island restaurant empire and a massive presence even in the sprawling banquet room that he built when he took over the Boathouse in 2000.
“I don’t have to negotiate with them over here,” he said, as the drumming of his forefinger on a white tablecloth kept approximate time with the beat outside. “I have a contract with the city! Why should I negotiate with them? Because he has supposedly 70 percent of the cards? If he has 70 percent of the cards, let’s have an election!”
He is Peter Ward, the head of the H.T.C., who said that he would have loved to have had an election—back before Mr. Poll fired half of the staff.
“For him to say that the only way there can be a union is through an election at this point in time is, frankly, horseshit,” Mr. Ward said. “He knows full well that the only people who can vote in the election are people that are on his payroll, and knows that he controls a majority of them at this point in time.”
Mr. Ward and Mr. Poll have squared off before. In 2009, Mr. Poll won the rights from the city to operate Tavern on the Green and tried to end the existing H.T.C. labor deal. The two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, and the deal fell through. The restaurant remains closed.
Outside the Boathouse, the strikers weren’t winning many friends. “Scumbag!” they shouted at restaurant-goers. “Hey, excuse me, you dropped something,” they said to confused diners. “Your dignity and self-respect. I think you left it out here.”
Inside, a siege mentality appeared to have taken hold among the diners tucking into their truffle herb-roasted Cornish game hen, and among the remaining employees, who looked a little rattled.
“Stay strong,” one middle-aged woman told the hostesses as she made her way outside. She made a sign of solidarity with her fist. “Don’t let them get to you.”