Universal Studio Tree Trimming Controversy, Explained


Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Tensions are heating up in the ongoing WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike, and so is Los Angeles: Temperatures are expected to reach into the mid-90s this week with the heat index making it feel even more hellacious. That’s no fun for the tens of thousands of workers on strike, some of whom — the WGA members — have been on strike since May 2. (SAG-AFTRA members just joined the strike last week.) It’s cooler in the shade on the picket lines, of course, but unfortunately, that relief has gotten harder to find after someone at NBC Universal decided it would be a good week to heavily trim back a line of trees outside the studio lot.

News of the trimming went viral on July 17 when one striking WGA member, Chris Stephens, posted a picture of the nearly bare trees to his Twitter account, writing, “Quick shoutout to the good people at @UniversalPics for trimming the trees that gave our picket line shade right before a 90+ degree week.” Strike supporters were quickly up in arms, weighing in with comments like, “Wow, they really will try all the dirty tricks they can,” and, “This is true villainy on the studios behalf.”

The trees in question, which appear to be Indian laurel figs, drop small fruit from their highest branches, hence the odd-looking top-lopping. It’s not great for the trees, though, with an official in Santa Monica who dealt with a similar rogue situation last year telling that city’s paper, “Industry guidelines are that you don’t remove any more than 30% of the foliage at one time.” Hotter months, he told the paper, are especially bad for trimming these types of trees since, “They have very thin bark, so if you remove all its foliage and expose the bark to the sun there’s a good chance the bark could get sun scalds and they could die.”

Things took an interesting turn on Tuesday when NBC Universal released a statement owning up to the fact that they’d taken a hack at the trees, but claiming that it was not their “intention” to create “unintended challenges for demonstrators.” The trees, the studio contends, are pruned annually around this time “in partnership with licensed arborists … to ensure that the canopies are light ahead of the high wind season.” The studio also said that it’s working to provide some sort of shade coverage for strikers to compensate for the loss of foliage.

The city quickly countered, though, saying that NBC Universal actually didn’t have the right to prune those trees since they never filed for a tree-trimming permit with the Urban Forestry Division and the Bureau of Street Services. “StreetsLA will issue a Notice to Comply to the property owner,” a spokesman for the Department of Public Works said in a statement. “This is standard practice for when work occurs in the public right-of-way without permission. UFD will also coordinate with StreetsLA’s Investigation and Enforcement Division (IED) to confirm if this case warrants the issuance of an administrative citation or an administrative hearing.” Moreover, the city says, NBC Universal hasn’t filed for tree trimming permits for at least the last three years, and per a recent audit by the LA City Controller’s office, trees should really only be trimmed every five years.

Also on Tuesday, SAG-AFTRA and the WGA filed a complaint about the matter with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging unfair labor practices and saying that Universal had not only made the picket lines more dangerous for strikers by eliminating shade but that a construction project on the lot has “forc[ed] picketers to patrol in busy streets with significant car traffic where two picketers have already been struck by a car.” The studio has also failed to provide road barriers to protect picketers or establish a safe walkway for them to use, despite an LAPD request made weeks ago. Universal says it’s working to rectify the matter and that they understand that “the timing of our multi-year construction project has created challenges.” It’s worth noting that some protestors allege that the construction only began or moved toward the line after the strike started, leading some to believe that the studio is acting maliciously.

LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia reported on Friday, July 21 that Universal Studios had been issued a citation of $250 for trimming trees without a city permit. StreetsLA issues a fine for each violation, not for each tree that was trimmed, for first-time offenders. That’s just a drop in the bucket for NBC Universal, which reportedly paid its (recently ousted) CEO $21 million dollars last year.

This post has been updated.

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