As Obscure as an Extra, She Has a Lead Role in Hollywood’s Labor Fight

As the Hollywood union strikes have dragged on, key characters have taken turns in the spotlight.

There is Fran Drescher, the comedic actress who, with surprising ferocity, has rallied the actors’ union against television and film companies, and enraged studio executives in the process. Robert A. Iger, who leads Disney, publicly pushed back against the striking workers, and found himself jeered on picket lines as a robber baron.

But one crucial participant has remained an enigma: Carol Lombardini, 68, the top union negotiator for studios and a 41-year veteran of Hollywood labor battles.

For someone who sits at the center of two increasingly bitter strikes — writers walked off the job on May 2, followed by actors on July 14 — very little is known about her. Ms. Lombardini has not given an interview of more than a few words since 2009, when she ascended from the No. 2 job to become president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the organization that bargains on behalf of the eight largest entertainment companies.

Until now, her tenure had been marked by labor peace. Studios reached an agreement with the directors’ union in June; the writers last struck in 2008, the actors in 1980. Over the years, she has told colleagues that cultivating a public persona would only undercut her effectiveness at the bargaining table. Or at least it would not help. She declined to comment for this article.

Wanted or not, the spotlight has found her. Many union members blame her for the negotiating logjam that has brought almost all movie and television production in Hollywood to a halt. Partly because of her woman-of-mystery persona and partly because she’s an easy target, Ms. Lombardini has become an avatar for the grievances of tens of thousands of striking workers. “Carol can go kick rocks,” Caroline Renard, a striking writer, said this month on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

With her public personality absent, actors and writers have invented one. In May, someone started a parody account on X that has portrayed Ms. Lombardini as a crass tyrant declaring, “I’m a goddess of chaos!” (Yes, she has seen it, an associate said. No, she is not amused.)

Another group of screenwriters have mocked Ms. Lombardini online as a fuddy-duddy who hangs out at chain restaurants, the taunt being that no Hollywood person would be caught dead in one. (Her office is near a Cheesecake Factory in suburban Los Angeles.)

Other union members seem to have simply grown curious about the Oz-like negotiator behind the curtain. “Will we ever find out what Carol Lombardini is in the flesh?!” Maridia Minor, a writer, asked on X last week.

A few facts are known about Ms. Lombardini. She is a devoted baseball fan. She grew up in a working-class town outside Boston. And of course, she has enormous power. Ms. Lombardini is responsible for negotiating all 58 of Hollywood’s union agreements, from contracts with the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, as the actors’ union is known, to ones with the American Federation of Musicians and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. How she handles herself — union officials who have negotiated with her describe her as blunt yet cordial — can make the difference between smooth talks and a strike.

Jeff Ruthizer, who spent 40 years as a labor negotiator at Disney, ABC and NBC and recently wrote a book, “Labor Pains,” drawing on that experience, called Ms. Lombardini “a funny person” who “knows how to read a room and is tough when she needs to be.”

At the end of the day, however, Ms. Lombardini is an employee, albeit one whose duties require deft ego management. She answers to moguls like Mr. Iger of Disney and Ted Sarandos of Netflix, who are not used to managing by committee. The other alliance members are NBCUniversal, Apple, Warner Bros. Discovery, Amazon, Paramount Global and Sony Pictures. Ms. Lombardini advises them on a course of action, but they ultimately decide on a strategy and then she does their bidding.

In late July, for instance, some company leaders pressed Ms. Lombardini to reopen negotiations with the Writers Guild. (The two sides had not met since early May.) While not adamantly opposed, Ms. Lombardini expressed skepticism; she was not convinced that the Writers Guild was ready to soften its stance, according to two studio chiefs and one studio labor lawyer involved in the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Ultimately, the companies directed her to re-engage with the writers.

The subsequent talks have gone poorly, with the Writers Guild holding firm to demands related to staffing minimums in television writers’ rooms and transparency into streaming-service viewership, among others. Frustrated, studio leaders told Ms. Lombardini on Tuesday to release the details of their sweetened proposal — which included higher wages, a pledge to share some viewership data and additional protections around the use of artificial intelligence — to the news media. It was essentially a strategy to go around the guild’s negotiating committee and appeal to rank-and-file members.

In a message to its 11,500 members on Thursday, the Writers Guild said it was “undeterred by this latest tactic.”

The Writers Guild declined to discuss Ms. Lombardini. Other unions did the same. (SAG-AFTRA, whose contract covers tens of thousands of movie and television actors, has not returned to the bargaining table in more than six weeks.) It appears, however, that union leaders have a grudging respect for her.

“She’s been around a long time, and she knows what she’s doing, and she commands a lot of respect as well,” Lindsay Dougherty, the lead Teamsters organizer in Hollywood, said in an interview with an entertainment trade news publication last year.

“I think she’s a fair individual,” Ms. Dougherty added. (Teamsters represent drivers, casting directors and animal handlers, among other Hollywood specialties.)

Ms. Lombardini in 2010. She has worked at the studio alliance since its creation in 1982.Credit…Robert Wright for The New York Times

Ms. Lombardini, an avid Red Sox and Dodgers fan, had a working-class upbringing in Framingham, Mass., and was inspired to become a lawyer by reading articles about F. Lee Bailey, according to an associate. After getting a bachelor’s degree in Renaissance history from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford, she started her career at law firms in Los Angeles, specializing in labor by happenstance after one firm moved her from its quiet trusts and estates department to its bustling labor one.

She has worked at the studio alliance since its creation in 1982 and is married to William Cole, a prominent labor lawyer whose clients have often included studios.

“Carol has one of the most complicated jobs in Hollywood — and it’s growing even more so — but I think she clearly understands and appreciates the challenge,” said Barry M. Meyer, a former Warner Bros. chairman who worked closely with Ms. Lombardini. “It’s actually been an integral part of her life’s work.”

By all accounts, Ms. Lombardini knows various union contracts cold, which is no small feat; the most recent Writers Guild contract ran 740 pages. Ms. Lombardini is not a zealot in the negotiating room, according to union officials who have sat across the table from her, but she can be brusque and unyielding. In a letter to its members this month, the Writers Guild said Ms. Lombardini would not engage on certain topics. “Carol’s response — something she repeated three times during the meeting: ‘People just want to get back to work.’”

In the past, studio leaders have prized her efficiency. “Carol has done a very good job this past year,” Kevin Tsujihara, who was the Warner Bros. chairman, wrote in a 2014 email that was made public as part of the Sony Pictures hack, noting that she had recently concluded six negotiations.

“There was no public drama and all were concluded within parameters we had established,” Mr. Tsujihara wrote. He recommended a bonus of $365,000, or 30 percent of her salary, which he listed as $1.2 million.

The job has become much more difficult. For a start, the studio alliance’s relatively recent additions of Apple, Netflix and Amazon have made its priorities more varied and unwieldy than in the past. The unions have grown more aggressive. And bargaining issues — the rise of artificial intelligence, for instance, and its potential to disrupt the creative process — have become more complex.

“She has to unify the various views of the studios and get everyone to agree,” Mr. Ruthizer, the labor lawyer, said. “And then she has the other job of negotiating with the other side of the table.”

“The challenge now is greater than she’s ever seen,” he added. “It’s bigger than anybody has ever seen.”

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