Newly named IATSE president Thomas C. Short has all the trappings of an old-style labor boss. He offers a vise-grip handshake, chain-smokes Kools and spits back answers in no-nonsense fashion. Take off the suit and tie and he could have stepped right off the set of “Hoffa.”

But don’t be fooled by the stocky build, beefy forearms and gritty demeanor. Short, who took over for late president Al DiTolla on Dec. 16, may just be the freshest breath of air to drift through the union’s East Coast halls in 50 years.

And West Coast labor leaders, who often feel ignored by the New York office, are hailing him as a possible savior for Hollywood locals that struggle every three years to stay afloat in contract talks with the producers‘ alliance.

“He represents a very hopeful sign,” says one Hollywood union local rep. “He’s a hands-on guy. That’s the key issue.”

Sources say Short’s regime will mean:

* Tougher negotiation in the next contract talks in summer of 1996.

* Aggressive organizing of non-union film and TV sets, which could increase the cost of low-and medium-budget pictures.

* A more active interest in the new technologies and how the IATSE will fit in with the information superhighway.

* An influx of youth that will replace what’s been called a “wheelchair” leadership.

* More attention paid to the concerns of the West Coast locals.

“In terms of the future, my intention is to be terribly aggressive,” Short says from his corner office in the Minskoff Building in Times Square. “My plans are going to be similar to President DiTolla. Organize the unorganized.”

At 46, Short is the youngest International president ever, overseeing some 78,000 technical and craft workers for stage, screen and TV. He takes over a union that has long been managed by what one high-ranking official terms “the wheelchair brigade.”

While happy to see more youthful leadership in the IA ranks, Hollywood labor reps have a bigger bone to pick – they say they want some long overdue attention.

“I think Tom’s going to be good,” says Sound Local 695 business agent David Kimball. “I’m looking forward to his administration. He’s already expressed a plan to spend time in the Hollywood region to better understand the conditions here.”

DiTolla’s legacy

Short, formerly the secretary-treasurer for the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, inherited the top slot just days before DiTolla died Dec. 20. Under DiTolla’s eight-year reign, the union’s ranks bulged from 60,000 to 78,000, and Short has nothing but praise for his predecessor and friend: “He was a well-liked president. The numbers of increasing incremental membership were glaring. Numbers don’t lie.”

But union officials say DiTolla’s organizing strength was tempered by an aversion to the West Coast and bitter backbiting among the locals that left a divided labor community.

“I think he only came out when he felt he had to,” says one Los Angeles source. “He didn’t appear to be enjoying himself out here.”

Even Short admits that DiTolla made negotiation mistakes by often announcing his bargaining intentions too early to the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. “I’m not going to make the same mistake that President DiTolla made. He unfortunately painted himself into a corner.”

Shrewd negotiator

DiTolla was known as a shrewd negotiator who somehow could win contract points even when it seemed the union was backed against the wall. In labor talks in December 1993, DiTolla left the table twice to emphasize his desire to get a better deal for IA workers on telefilms. In return, he made some major concessions on low-budget features that would ideally prompt AMPTP producers of low-budget pix to use IA workers rather than hide out in distant locales with non-union crews.

A topper with teeth

Critics nonetheless complained that DiTolla was too easy on the studios. “At least that last contract was good for toilet paper because it was so soft,” says one source. “Now maybe we’ll be getting some representation. Now we have someone to turn to.”

Short’s plan is simple. Like Albert Einstein, he wants to unify the field.

“What I want to do is bring the locals together,” Short says. “I want to make them one mind and one voice. There will be disagreement in the four corners of the room. But they will leave the room of one mind.”

With that goal, Short quickly put to rest rumors that surfaced after DiTolla died that Short planned to replace most of the Hollywood office. Almost immediately, he hopped on a plane to meet with business agents and presidents of the Hollywood region craft locals.

“He’s trying to get the whole international union to think of itself as an international – as opposed to us, them and the others,” says another labor insider. “The IA is so vulnerable right now. A couple of good shots and you bust the basic agreement wide open.”

The biggest issue may be the IA’s inability to change with the new technologies. Sources say Short has a much better grasp on the needs of locals to train and educate members on high tech. While the Screen Actors Guild is bargaining for property rights on the infopike, the IATSE merely wants to staff those shows. And sources say Short will aggressively push the union in that direction. Already the union is starting up IA Online, a bulletin board that will be available to more than 70,000 members.

“DiTolla let some locals run crazy,” says a local chief. “These guys didn’t understand how the industry has changed and that we need to make changes.”

West Coast boom

Short is most pleased to see employment booming of late for the West Coast locals. He says the veiled threat of Screen Actors Guild talks with the AMPTP has set so many projects into production that some IA locals are off-list – or at full employment – and signing up new members. Carrying on DiTolla’s legacy, Short says three words sum up his immediate philosophy: “Organize, organize and organize.” Pressed on details, he’s sketchy but maintains that the union will step up efforts to blanket the United States and Canada with IA field reps and increase staffing nationally if necessary.

Short boasts of six new films and TV projects that the IA has organized in the past few months in various locations: “Gaslight Addition,” “Andersonville,” “The Piano Lesson,” “The Grass Harp,” “The Oksana Baiul Story” and “Tadd.”

“Gaslight Addition” and “The Grass Harp,” in particular, may represent a new beginning for the union. Their producer, New Line Cinema, has long avoided the IATSE, instead employing nonunion crews in hidden locations. Short says the union is targeting New Line – which has spent big development money in the past year to gain industry consideration as a major filmmaker – to start using union crews all the time.

Short also wants to cultivate new members to go along with the now-youthful administration. “We need to start integrating some youth into the principal positions of the alliance, from the top to the bottom.”

Short, who now lives in New York, hails from a long line of labor officials in Ohio. His grandfather Adrian Short was a longtime member of Stage-hands Local 27 of Cleveland, while his father, Adrian Short Jr., was president of the same group during a 40-year union career. His father ultimately rose to the international veepee level in the IATSE, while his brother Dale Short is currently Local 27’s business agent. Short is so union-bound that he granted Variety an exclusive first interview because both its papers are printed in union houses.

Short’s union career almost came to a crashing halt in 1980 when he was charged with embezzling $2,000 during IA conventions in 1976 and 1978. His father also was charged with appropriating about $20,000 in union funds.

The charges against the younger Short were dropped in 1984, but Adrian Short Jr. pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of filing a false income tax return and spent four months in jail.

Short says he was particularly irked by media reports that linked the dropping of the charges against him with his father’s plea-bargain settlement.

An old-time union hand says Short is well regarded by old and new union members. “They like him…. Everybody is kind of waiting and anticipating what he’s going to do.”

Short, meanwhile, wants to reverse the current thinking that labor is in a downward trend. IA figures show that in 1993 the union staffed only about 48% of films made in the U.S. and Canada. “What’s my goal?” he quietly asks. “100%.”

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