Dean Poll and the Unions

When the Parks Department last August chose Central Park Boathouse proprietor Dean Poll to take over Tavern on the Green, the city presented Mr. Poll with a diplomatic challenge: He would have to negotiate with a large, unionized workforce to craft a labor agreement that would allow the business to move forward.

Since the former Tavern operators, the LeRoy family, prepared to vacate last fall, much has been written about the stalling of the three-way negotiations between the city, Mr. Poll and the union. But little has been written about Mr. Poll’s previous experience with a unionized wait staff.

It’s not pretty.

On June 11, 1993, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which included current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, upheld a 1991 National Labor Relations Board verdict that the Bryant & Cooper Steakhouse, owned by Mr. Poll and his family, had violated the National Labor Relations Act.

A heated argument erupted. Mr. Schalen told the Polls he never would have worked the party if he had known he was going to get such paltry tips. ‘Get the hell out of here,’ Dean Poll told him.

The decision ordered the Polls to “cease and desist from,” among other activities, “interrogating its employees concerning their membership in, or activities on behalf of, Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, 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.” It also ordered the Polls to reinstate two employees who’d been improperly fired for their union activities.

One of those employees, Rense Schalen, was hired in July 1988-three years after the Polls bought a Roslyn, Long Island, restaurant called Manero’s, where the staff had been unionized for more than two decades; two years after an election at the restaurant decertified the union; and one year after the restaurant was closed, rehabilitated and renamed Bryant & Cooper Steakhouse, a fancier joint where waiters were required to trade in their cowboy shirts for jackets and ties and carry all beverages on trays.

On Sept. 10, 1988, Mr. Schalen and seven other waiters were asked to work a catered party. They were promised tips of $106 each, according to court papers. In the end, they were paid only $70. That same evening, Mr. Schalen took a call at the bar from his girlfriend. During the phone call, he complained about the small tip and said he was going to report it to Local 100 and the labor board.

Unbeknownst to him, according to court papers, “Dean and Gillis Poll were in the bar area, about 12 feet away from Schalen when he had this conversation, but they were situated so that Schalen did not see them.”

Mr. Schalen had barely hung up when the restaurant’s manager told him that Dean Poll and his brother Gillis wanted to see him. He went to the bar.

Gillis Poll told him that they had overheard the conversation with the girlfriend. Was he unhappy about the gratuity?

“We are very unhappy about it,” Mr. Schalen replied, according to court papers.

“Are you the spokesman for everybody?” Gillis Poll said.

Mr. Schalen said he was not.

A heated argument erupted. Mr. Schalen told the Polls he never would have worked the party if he had known he was going to get such paltry tips, according to court papers.

“Get the hell out of here,” Dean Poll told him.

The National Labor Relations Board found that Mr. Schalen was fired for engaging in “protected” activity-e.g., union activity. (Mr. Schalen could not be reached for comment.)

Today, 17 years after the court decision, Dean Poll is again locked in a tense struggle with a union, this time at what was once the nation’s most lucrative independent restaurant and a New York City touchstone, Tavern on the Green, which has been closed since the LeRoys vacated.

His ability to deal delicately with the union will determine whether the restaurant can reopen, the staff can return to work and the city can have its Tavern back. Or, whether the city will have to start the search all over again for a new restaurateur.

Mr. Poll did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the Parks Department. Dean Poll and the Unions