Tom Short, the son of a Cleveland union boss, is not on power lists. He rarely strolls red carpets with stars. But he ranks among the most influential and feared figures in Hollywood.
His clout is evident on film and television production sets every day.
Last summer, writers on the reality TV show "America's Next Top Model" walked off the job in a dispute with producers.
Short, head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, undercut the strike by having his members take over the writers' work. After two months, the strike died.
What sets the 58-year-old Short apart from a typical union leader is that he often is more ally than adversary to management. With tense contract talks anticipated this year between writers and producers, Short's role has never been more important. A strike could throw thousands of people out of work, upending Los Angeles' $30-billion entertainment economy. Even the mere threat of a work stoppage could turn production schedules upside down, idling workers for months.
Studio bosses are hoping that Short, who is based in New York, will use his influence to avoid a strike and that he will temper the more strident Writers Guild of America.
"He's tough, but he's fair and you can trust him," said Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers President J. Nicholas Counter, the studios' negotiator. "When you make a deal with Tom Short, you know it's a deal."
Many in the rank and file credit Short for strengthening a splintered union whose spotty history dates to the 1930s, when it was run by Chicago gangster Al Capone. Short's union boasts about 30,000 mostly blue-collar workers in L.A. alone, including set builders, camera operators, grips, painters and costume designers. His members work on virtually every major production, whether it's the movie "Dreamgirls," TV's "American Idol" or Broadway's "Wicked."
In an industry where clout is fleeting, Short maintains an iron grip over his far-flung membership -- from Vancouver, Canada, to Orlando, Fla. -- with an old-school, bare-knuckles style. Though he can be charming, he often reserves his wrath for fellow labor leaders and even his own union members. Critics say he uses his power to intimidate dissidents in an effort to silence them.
When Michael Everett, a union dissident, questioned why the IATSE chose a lavish resort in Hawaii for its quadrennial convention in 2005, Short responded by stationing workers at the hall entrance to pass out portraits of Everett resembling a wanted poster. "Don't allow this malcontent to question your dedication. Give Brother Everett a Hearty Aloha!" the fliers read.
"He's a classic bully," Everett said. "People are afraid of him. He intimidates those who oppose him."
Short declined to be interviewed, suggesting in a letter to The Times that his opponents were aiming to undermine him.
"It is also no secret in California that there are people in our industry who would like, for their own reasons, to discredit me prior to the time scheduled for critical industrywide negotiations," Short wrote. "I make no apologies for the strong positions I have taken ... on behalf of the more than 100,000 working women and men I speak for in the IATSE."
With a penchant for dark suits and brightly colored ties, Short has a reputation for being guarded and brusque. He presides over tightly controlled board meetings that often include testimonials from union officials praising his leadership. He makes clear to his staff members that he likes to be called President Short.
His prolific organizing boosted membership in the last decade by more than 60% at a time when unions across America have been shrinking. Short enrolled new classes of workers such as production accountants and crews on low-budget films.
"He had a vision for the future," said entertainment lawyer Howard Fabrick, who has represented film and TV producers.
One of Short's main accomplishments has been to zealously protect what is widely considered the richest health and pension plan in Hollywood. Once workers log a minimum of 300 hours in a six-month period, they receive full coverage without having to pay insurance premiums.
Short has advocated cooperative negotiations with the giant media conglomerates that control studios and TV networks, reasoning they would pay a high price to secure labor peace well before contracts expire. But the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild have leaders who vow to oppose the studios on such issues as sharing revenue from DVD sales and digital downloads.
Infighting among Hollywood unions usually stays behind closed doors. But Short has publicly lambasted Writers Guild leaders as "certain officers who don't work in the industry" and incompetent in their negotiating skills.
"It's very unusual to have one union attack the leadership and strategy of another in this kind of public way," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley labor professor. "It's incendiary."