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IATSE's Tom Short redraws illustrators and designers

October 3, 2008 |  6:04 pm

The long arm of Tom Short continues to reach its way across the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, even though he retired from the labor organization several months ago.

TomshortIn one of his last acts before stepping down in July as president of IATSE, the powerful union chief attempted to push through the merger of two locals representing illustrators and set designers with the larger Art Directors Guild, known as Local 800.

Short argued a merger would strengthen the clout of the individual guilds and limit turf battles. Known as much for his old-school, autocratic style as his tireless organizing, Short finally got his wish last week when staff members from the two smaller locals -- Local 790 (illustrators and matte artists) and Local 847 (set designers and model makers) -- cleared out their desks in Sherman Oaks and moved into the ADG offices in Studio City.

But the shotgun merger has angered the smaller locals, whose members voted down the idea at a meeting in May, fearing they would lose their autonomy and be forced to join a union dominated by people who act as their supervisors. The ADG has 1,500 members, versus about 500 in the others.

Suspicions and rivalries run deep between illustrators and set designers, and the art directors to whom they report. All three jobs work in close collaboration with one another but zealously guard their highly specific functions. Illustators draw scenes of movies and TV shows before they are filmed. Set designers create blueprints of the sets from those illustrations. And art directors oversee the entire process. For years, illustrators have complained about art directors taking credit for their work and hiring non-union artists. And set designers have groused that assistant art directors are taking over their jobs.

Spurred by such fears, illustrators and set designers banded together to fight the plan. They filed a lawsuit to block the merger. But last month a judge cleared the way, subject to the outcome of an appeal of a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB had dismissed a complaint from the locals that the merger was improper. (The IATSE has filed its own lawsuit against the locals, alleging that the merger was necessary because changing technology had blurred the lines between the crafts.)Ctlogo_2

“This was [Short’s] last hurrah to get us into another local,” says Gary Speckman, a board member with Local 847. “We didn’t want to be pushed into it.”

Joseph Musso, president of Local 790, says art directors wanted to “dominate us so they can do whatever they want.”

The veteran illustrator, who has worked on "Flags of Our Fathers" and "The Italian Job," says dissolving the locals was a “vendetta from Short” in response to a complaint Musso lodged in 2000 that IATSE was not investigating grievances Musso and another illustrator had about an art director taking credit for their work. Short said the dispute was a non-union matter better left to the courts. After Musso questioned Short's decision, the union chief rebuked him for taking his complaints to a Hollywood trade paper, and vowed to press head with a merger of the unions.

An IATSE spokesman said Short wasn't available for comment. Art Directors Guild Executive Director Scott Roth says, “It’s a sensitive time, but we’re moving in the right direction to effectuate the merger.” He declines to elaborate.

-- Richard Verrier

Photo: Tom Short, courtesy of I.A.T.S.E.