The “old chairs” fight back

September 21, 2011

Jon Reiner reports on a lively strike at a landmark New York City restaurant.

A NOTORIOUS New York City employer is starting to crack in the face of a determined struggle by workers at the famous Central Park Boathouse, agreeing to rehire workers who were fired for union organizing.

Workers at the Boathouse walked off the job August 9 after owner Dean Poll fired 38 of them who had either signed up to be represented by UNITE HERE Local 6, or just supported those who joined the union.

Poll's anti-union campaign began in late January, when he fired 16 workers, all of them waiters. Clay Skaggs, who has worked at the restaurant for six years as an a la carte waiter, said that one of Poll's managers told the fired workers, "You guys are like old chairs. When a chair breaks, we throw it out on the curb and get rid of it."

Imagine management's surprise when those "old chairs," along with their allies in the New York Hotel Trades Council (NYHTC), organized an impressive campaign, featuring a Dump Dean website and literature that workers have been passing out in front of the restaurant seven days a week.

Boathouse workers on strike picket in Central Park
Boathouse workers on strike picket in Central Park

Skaggs estimated that the strike and leafleting had reduced restaurant business by 70 percent. Meanwhile, workers like 25-year-old Jonathan Garcia, one of the original 16 who was fired, have now taken the lead in the fight for their rights as workers.

Poll, who faces an array of legal challenges, was informed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that it was seeking a rarely granted judicial order that would force the Boathouse to recognize the NYHTC and enter into negotiations to hammer out a full union contract.

This would be unusual, as no vote was ever held to decide whether the 140 employees of the restaurant wanted to unionize, though the workers had filed for an election with the NLRB. However, there is evidence that an election was prevented because Poll fired the first 16 workers back in January. Workers say that before the firings took place, 70 percent of employees were in favor of the union and had signed union cards. The NLRB seems to be convicted that these illegal acts prevented the vote from taking place in the first place.

What you can do

To find out more about the Central Park Boathouse workers' struggle, and how you can support them, visit the Dump Dean website.

Perhaps for these reasons, Poll finally agreed on September 12 to recognize and negotiate a contract with the NYHTC, and to hire back the fired workers, though, most have already been hired by area hotels. Despite these concessions, NYHTC President Peter Ward said the strike would continue until a contract is signed.

THE UNION is right to keep the pressure on Poll, a boss with a long record of anti-labor behavior.

In 1991, the NLRB ruled that his Bryant & Cooper Steakhouse was guilty of "interrogating its employees concerning their membership in, or activities on behalf of, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100...creating the impression of surveillance of its employees' activities on behalf of the union or any other labor organization...[and] changing the work schedules of its employees because of their activities on behalf of the Union or any other labor organization," according to a later federal court decision.

In 2007, City Comptroller Bill Thompson found that Poll had cheated New York City, which owns the boathouse, though not the actual restaurant, out of $609,923 of its share of the revenue. Thompson's successor, John Liu ordered a follow-up audit to be conducted on the Boathouse. In addition, the New York State Department of Labor is investigating multiple wage and hours violations committed by Poll and the restaurant's managers.

In 2008, some 32 Boathouse employees sued the restaurant for stealing their gratuities. This trend has continued as the banquet staff, who rely on tips to survive, claim that Poll and his managers have stolen $3.4 million in gratuities from them.

Jose Barrera, who has worked in the fast food service at the Boathouse for more than six years, gave an example of one of Poll's schemes. He explained that a routine practice at the Boathouse is for managers to put up a sign over the time clock saying it is broken, and for workers to report to their respective managers to have their time logged. Barrera said countless workers have had time docked from them due to the managers shortchanging them.

Not surprisingly, Barrera and his co-workers don't think for a second that Poll will honor anything he said unless he is contractually and legally obligated to do so.

But wage theft only scratches the surface of the many ways that Dean Poll is an abusive employer.

Barrera carries pictures of horrible scars on his arm that he received from carrying a hot pot that had no handles. He also showed pictures of him and fellow fast-food workers washing dishes with scalding hot water, while forced to wear plastic garbage bags over their bodies, since aprons weren't provided. Barrera's area, which brought in about $50,000 a week, has been desolate since the strike began.

MEANWHILE, LOCAL 6 organizer Meg Fosque described widespread sexual harassment at the restaurant. In June, charges of sexual harassment were filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to Fosque, two managers repeatedly asked female employees out on dates and, when they refused, punished them by cutting their hours.

One manager has been accused of showing lewd photographs to the women, making sexually harassing overtures to them and even becoming irate when learning that one of the married employees he was pursuing had become pregnant. This worker was further punished by being assigned to the most strenuous jobs, in an effort to make her quit.

Fosque said that Poll was fully aware of these accusations and did nothing about them. He similarly took no action when five women raised complaints of sexual harassment in November of last year.

Fosque also described the racist discriminatory hiring practices of restaurant management, particularly in the a la carte side of the business, where few of the more than 20 waiters are non-white. Poll has not promoted wait staff from within, denying longtime workers in the banquet hall, who know the job best, the opportunity to earn a better living.

These, of course, are the same workers who have had $3.4 million in gratuities stolen from them. Many of the workers are undocumented, and when they tried to unionize, he fired them.

Poll replaced many workers with recent parolees, exploiting them with low wages of just $7.50 an hour. He threatened to have them sent back to jail if they attempted to unionize or complain about the lack of pay and poor working conditions. Poll has been forced to rely on scabs, which he first brought in last December with the excuse that the restaurant was understaffed during the busy holiday season.

What's more, the Boathouse has failed its last two health inspections, which have uncovered evidence of live mice, filth, flies, raw sewage backed up on the kitchen floor, and hot and cold food being kept at unsafe temperatures.

The fight at the Central Park Boathouse only involves 80 workers, but working people everywhere should learn from their fighting spirit. And unions everywhere could learn a lesson from the NYHTC, which has stood by the Boathouse workers every step of the way, sending supporters to the picket line seven days a week, with more than 100 every weekend.

But the battle isn't yet won. For those who want to get involved, they can go to the Boathouse in Central Park every day week, from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. to help on the picket line.

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