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.”
The strike has now been going on for over a week, and the union’s approach is two-fold. On the one hand, they are trying to drive away enough customers that the Boathouse suffers and caves. (Business, according to Mr. Poll, is holding steady.) On the other, they are attempting to pressure the Parks Department—or the Bloomberg administration—to rip up Mr. Poll’s contract and find someone more union-friendly to operate the restaurant. So far, the city has maintained that the dispute is a private matter, but all of the top 2013 mayoral contenders have marched in support of the strikers, and the union hopes that Mr. Poll realizes that the jig will be up in two years.
Asked about the dossier disparaging his management, Mr. Poll categorically denied all of the union’s charges. No one complained to him of any sexual harassment. (“If these are true, we never knew about it. Our employee handbook clearly states that if you have an issue, bring it up.”) The audit from the comptroller’s office, which alleged that Mr. Poll owed the city over half a million dollars, was “typical of what goes on in the comptroller’s office. The Parks Department had no issue with the way we conducted ourselves.” The pols piling on are behaving like typical pols in a union town. The waiters who didn’t receive tips were overpaid. Mr. Poll conceded that some workers walked off the job in 2008 after he screamed at them for not washing up properly. “I was premature and abrupt, O.K.?” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? This won’t look good. This could be perceived as being wrong.’ So we invited everybody back. The two people I fired, they’re still here!”
He walked through the kitchen area.
“Laura, how long have you been working here?” he asked one cashier.
“Jennifer,” she said.
“Jennifer, how long have you been working here?”
“Do you enjoy working here?”
“You see? That’s why she’s here.”
Twice during an hour-long conversation, a police officer and an assistant walked in to update Mr. Poll on the situation outside. Not much appeared to be changing. A young woman stood in front of the entrance holding her 2-year-old son and debated going inside.
“It’s kind of embarrassing to walk in here and hear this,” said the young woman, Lee Theobald. “You don’t want to not support people who are being treated unfairly. But then I don’t know where to go. There is the knish place—that’s crap. Pain Quotidien is overpriced and their bread is stale. It disheartens me.”
No solution appears to be in sight.
“Yeah. Go away,” Mr. Poll said when asked how the dispute can be resolved. “I can’t tell you what this place means to me. I am not the tyrant they say I am.”
“We intend to fight this until the end,” Mr. Ward said. “We are not going to walk away. We are not going to back down. It is up to Dean to come to his senses and find a reasonable solution. He is not dealing with maniacs. We are rational actors.”
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