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Elected officials and 1,500 members rally for Boathouse workers

NYHTC - May 1, 2011 Share/Save/Bookmark

On Thursday, April 21st, more than 1,500 NYHTC members, and an impressive list of important elected officials came out to the rally to support the Boathouse workers in their fight for a union.

The rally was the opening shot in the final phase of the fight for a union at the Boathouse, the pressure campaign against management to remedy all the unfair labor practices and to sign a contract.

 

The list of rally speakers included three Boathouse workers (Banquet Server Alejandra Betancur, Bartender Barry O'Flanagan, and Cook Fernando Galicia), one union official (Jim Donovan), and eight of the most prominent elected officials in New York City (Comptroller John Liu, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilmember Gale Brewer, Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, Councilmember Danny Dromm, and Councilmember Letitia James).

Significantly, all the elected officials who spoke gave strong speeches of support for the Boathouse workers and scathingly condemned Dean Poll. This ought to be especially worrisome to Mr. Poll since three of the speakers are major contenders in the next mayoral election. The Commissioner of Parks answers directly to the mayor and has the unquestioned authority to take away Poll's license to operate the Boathouse.

The big crowd and big name politicians drew significant media coverage.

The rally began with an unfortunate accident preventing HTC President Peter Ward from attending. Ward had been scheduled to give a speech and to emcee the event. However, a few minutes before the rally began, he was injured by a rollerblader who had lost control going down a hill at high speed, close to the Boathouse. Ward was thrown about 20 feet by the collision, broke his leg, and had to be taken by ambulance to Lenox Hill Hospital.

"I was very disappointed I couldn't be there, but judging from the TV coverage, it was a big success," Ward commented later by phone from the hospital.

Filling in for Peter Ward, Local 6 President and HTC General Organizer Jim Donovan gave the first speech, which was short and to the point.

"Ugly things are happening in that building," Donovan said, pointing to the Boathouse, "a sweatshop is operating right here, in Central Park"

Donovan explained how the rights of Boathouse workers are being violated by Dean Poll, asserting, "we're not going to put up with it."

Then he asked those present if they could be counted on to help picket the Boathouse if Boathouse employees vote to strike.

The crowd answered with a resounding,"YES!'

 

Next, Banquet Server Alejandra Betancur gave a powerful speech about the fight for a union contract at the Boathouse. Alejandra's speech was delivered in Spanish, and translated into English by Organizer Charlotte Hall.

Alejandra explained that she had joined the Union Organizing Committee not only for herself, but also "to protect future female employees from the type of discrimination I endured while pregnant at the Boathouse." Upon hearing this, the crowd went wild and broke out into chants of "Shame on Dean Poll" and "No Justice, No Peace".

Raising her voice to quiet the crowd, Alejandra went on to tell how she had been illegally fired, along with 15 of her coworkers.

"Like replacing old chairs, these were the words of Director of Operations Anthony Walton," she told the audience. Alejandra was one of the employees fired on January 25, in the now infamous "Chair Massacre." That mass termination in the banquet department was only the most shocking incident in the long list of illegal acts of retaliation (including numerous other terminations) committed by Dean Poll in his desperation to crush the union organizing drive at the Boathouse.

Alejandra described how Dean Poll threw a fancy Christmas party for the employees' children, and then shortly afterwards threw their parents out onto the street.

"And that's when I really understood that no one, not a single one of us, can trust this man, Dean Poll, and that none of us are safe at this restaurant without a union contract," Alejandra explained.

Alejandra said that she and her family, like so many immigrants before them, had come to the United States to live in a country where ordinary people could have justice, freedom and equality. She then asked if New York City would destroy these aspirations by failing to hold Dean Poll accountable for his illegal acts.

The elected officials who were present listened to Alejandra with attentiveness and, apparently, growing anger.

 

Then, New York City Comptroller, John Liu spoke.

Liu started off by saying that although it was a beautiful day in Central Park, we were standing in front of a part of the park [the Boathouse] "that is not clean."

"What we have here is an operator who has a record that we have just heard the gruesome details of," said Liu.

Referring to Alejandra, he said that she is an immigrant "who came here to find the American Dream, and she experienced a nightmare instead."

Liu then talked about the "documented record" of abuse at the Boathouse and stated that even his predecessor, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, had issued a report four years ago showing that the Boathouse had cheated workers out of their fair wages.

He then insisted, "What we need here is a fair operator, someone who is going to play by the rules, and someone who is going to respect the hard work and the dignity of all the people who actually make a place like this successful!"

The crowd interrupted the Comptroller repeatedly to cheer at his strong comments.

Liu said that it was especially critical that at a restaurant operating on city property, "we get what we are demanding, fair treatment, good wages, respect and dignity for the workers."

Then, to more cheers, he promised to work to support the Boathouse workers, concluding, "We're going to prevail here!"

After Liu, Boathouse Bartender, Barry O'Flanagan spoke. Barry is a Marine Corps veteran who served as a sergeant during the Iraq War. He was terminated a few weeks ago by Safet Kurtovic.

 

Barry told the crowd that he had not been active in the union organizing drive during its early stages, although he agreed the Boathouse needed a union. After leaving the military, Barry wanted to focus on going to school. "My time in Iraq had afforded me free educational benefits at CUNY. I was focused on making money and finishing school," he said.

He explained how he had watched as his friends and co-workers were being mistreated, and how the legal rights of employees were being trampled by Dean Poll. He described how he had been inspired by the courage of union committee members, especially Jennifer Avilla.

He said that he had fought for our country because we have laws and rights, "including the right to organize unions."

Over time, his support for the union became more obvious to his co-workers.

As had occurred in previous years, Barry was taken off the schedule during the slow season. Before he left, and during the slow season, management encouraged him repeatedly to come back to work this April. Then, a few weeks ago, Safet Kurtovic told Barry that he would not be permitted to return. Kurtovic claimed that Barry had been "a disciplinary problem."

This came as a surprise since he had only ever received one writeup, and that happened at the beginning of the previous busy season. Barry worked for months after the writeup without receiving any indication from management that he was viewed as "a disciplinary problem." Kurtovic could not even remember what the writeup was about.

Barry told the crowd his story, and said he believed his termination was part of management's effort to eliminate the union's majority through the mass terminations of union supporters, and others who were not sufficiently anti-union in management's view.

 

"For months, managers have been interrogating employees about who supports the union and who doesn't," Barry said. "The union has given the Labor Board a mountain of evidence to prove this. Now we know how management intended to use that information."

Barry told the crowd that he was going to see the organizing drive through to victory.

He concluded by advising Dean Poll: "Give up, man. It's already over. You can't win. Recognize our union and negotiate a fair deal. Otherwise this is a taste of what's to come."

Next, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer spoke, passionately demanding justice for the Boathouse workers.

Addressing Dean Poll, Stringer said that although Poll had been given the extraordinary opportunity to operate the lucrative Boathouse concession in Central Park, "that doesn't mean you have the right to violate the New York City business code of conduct."

Stringer said that he and other New York City officials were going to "draw the line in the sand," and "we're not going to let hard working people in this city get shafted" (referring to the Boathouse employees).

He exhorted those present to keep up the fight at the Boathouse, and promised to do his part.

Christine Quinn, the Speaker of the City Council, followed Borough President Stringer.

Quinn stated that she was "incredibly concerned and outraged" about the treatment of Boathouse employees.

"Operating a business in Central Park is not a right, it is a privilege, extended to you by the government of the City of New York" Quinn said, addressing Dean Poll.

Quinn said, "if we allow this situation to continue here, it will spread to other establishments."

Quinn pledged "the full support of the City Council" to the Boathouse workers.

"To the folks running the Boathouse," she said, "this is a privilege, and the thing about a privilege is, it can be given, and it can be taken away."

Speaker Quinn then introduced three City Councilmembers who also spoke.

 

Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, Chair of the City Council Committee responsible for overseeing the Parks Department, went to the podium wearing the rally tee-shirt, emblazoned with the words "KEEP OUR PARK CLEAN, DUMP DEAN."

To the crowd, she shouted, "I'm proudly wearing this shirt which clearly says "WHOSE PARK?"

The crowd loudly responded, "OUR PARK!"

She asked again, "WHOSE PARK?!"

Everyone yelled back, "OUR PARK!!"

"That's right," Mark-Viverito intoned. "We can't forget that THIS IS OUR PARK!"

She then said that the people of New York City will not tolerate having union-busters like Dean Poll operating businesses on public property. She said that unions are too important to the working people of New York to let such things happen, because "unions stand up for the respect and dignity of workers."

"We will make sure we hold Dean Poll accountable," Mark-Viverito promised.

Then Councilmember Gale Brewer (who represents the Upper Westside) took the podium. Brewer told the crowd that she was proud to stand with the Boathouse workers. She agreed with the other speakers that the City will not put up with the kind of behavior Boathouse management has engaged in on public land, and she encouraged the workers to continue to organize to win.

Next, Elizabeth Crowley, Councilmember from Queens, spoke.

"Before I was a Councilmember, I was a proud union member," Crowley said, "and once you're a proud union member, you're always a proud union member."

Connecting the Boathouse workers' fight to larger, national issues, Crowley strongly counter-attacked the "forces that are attacking workers." She said that "union-busters" in other states were persecuting working people and using the false excuse of balancing budgets to justify their attacks.

 

She said the way you eliminate deficits is "you look for money in the budget that isn't well spent, or you look for contractors who aren't paying their fair share."

"Four years ago," Crowley said, "the Comptroller found that Dean Poll and the Boathouse wasn't paying its fair share to the City."

"But what's worse is the discrimination, the harassment, and the illegal firings happening at the Boathouse," Crowley insisted.

Crowley then pledged her support for the union and the workers at the Boathouse, "because only in solidarity, will we win!"

The next speaker was Boathouse cook and Organizing Committee Member, Fernando Galicia.

Fernando said that he wanted to explain why he and the large majority of his co-workers were organizing the union. Fernando said it came down to one word "respect."

He said that the hard work of Boathouse employees made Dean Poll a rich man.

"We do not expect to become rich by working here," Fernando said, "but we do ask Dean Poll to respect our hard work by paying us a fair wage, treating us like human beings and obeying our legal rights."

Fernando described how dishwashers earn only $7.50 an hour, pointed out that many other Boathouse employees earned only slightly more, and asked how anyone could be expected to live on such "poverty wages" in New York City.

 

He said Boathouse workers are fighting for respect for the "needs of our families." He described how "all but a tiny handful" of the employees do not have health insurance, because the plan is designed to make it impossible for most employees to be eligible, and too expensive for those who are eligible to afford.

"In my case, the cost of covering myself, my wife and my kids would be $264.16, about half my paycheck," Fernando explained.

The crowd gasped as Fernando described conditions like these in the Boathouse. Most of the people in the crowd were members of the Hotel Trades Council and enjoy much higher pay than Boathouse workers, full, free, family health coverage, job security, and effective rights to resolve their grievances at work.

"When you think about it, health insurance is enough reason by itself to want the union," Boathouse Salad Prep Cook, Arturo Cornejo, commented after Fernando's speech.

Then Fernando told the audience how disrespectfully Spanish-speakers are treated by Dean Poll.

"Over half the workers at the Boathouse are Spanish-speakers," Fernando said, but "Dean Poll has never had enough respect for us to have the rules and policies of the Boathouse and employee meetings translated into the language we understand." At this the crowd interrupted Fernando and booed loudly.

Fernando pointed out, however, that Dean Poll always makes sure that his anti-union propaganda was translated into Spanish.

Boathouse Cook David Gatica commented, "I was glad Fernando talked about this because once, I was personally called into a private meeting with Dean Poll and he lectured and criticized me for speaking Spanish in his anti-union captive audience meeting because I wanted my co-workers to understand what I was saying."

Fernando described how Dean Poll insults the intelligence of employees by trying to bribe them with insignificant improvements in conditions in the hope of undermining worker support for the union.

"But we have not forgotten the years of abuse, cruelty, and mistreatment," Fernando said. "We have NOT forgotten the heartless firings and layoffs of our friends. We are smart enough to understand very well that we must win this fight or we will have no future at the Boathouse."

City Councilmembers Danny Dromm (Queens) and Letitia James (Brooklyn) arrived late and also spoke.

Dromm proudly told the crowd that he too was a union member, "I've been a union member for 25 years a member of the teachers union and I know firsthand how important unions are."

"We are going to send a message to the owner [Dean Poll]," Dromm continued. "We are going to tell him: You are not going to abuse us and you are not going to harass us."

 

Amazingly, Councilmember Letitia James managed to get the crowd even more pumped up, at first, by leading union chants, and then with her eloquent and crystal clear words.

"I raise my voice and I tell the Boathouse that if you don't want any trouble from a loudmouth in Brooklyn, you'd better do the right thing and respect the workers' rights," she said, to the loud cheers of the audience.

Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries also attended much of the rally but, unfortunately, had to leave before they had a chance to address the audience.

After Letitia James spoke, Jim Donovan asked the workers present to go back into their shops and spread the word of what they heard at the rally. He told them to be prepared to support a strike if the Boathouse workers vote for one. The crowd loudly demonstrated their enthusiasm and support for any actions needed to help the Boathouse workers.

Room Attendant Gladys Natal of the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel commented as the rally adjourned, "Dean Poll should just negotiate a fair contract because now he's got thousands of hotel and restaurant workers mad as hell at him."