When Universal Pictures studios trimmed several trees lining a writers’ picket line to bare bones this week amid a sweltering heat wave, they did so without obtaining a permit from the city, making the move potentially illegal, Los Angeles officials have found.
On Monday, comedian and TV writer Chris Stephens noted on Twitter that, over the weekend, NBCUniversal corporation appeared to have trimmed trees along a street where Writers Guild of America (WGA) members have been picketing as part of the union’s over two-month-long strike.
Union members said the tree trimming appeared to be a targeted move by the studio to attempt to break strikers’ will and even potentially physically harm them as Southern California is being scorched with record-breaking temperatures near or at 100 degrees. It came just days after 160,000 unionized actors began striking, turning up the pressure on studios.
The tree trimming caught the attention of LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia, who announced on Wednesday that a short investigation by the city has uncovered that there have not been any tree trimming permits issued for that street in recent years.
“With cooperation from the Bureau of Street Services, we have found that no tree trimming permits have been issued over the last three years for this location outside Universal Studios,” Mejia tweeted. “Also, the City did not issue any tree trimming permits for the latest tree trimmings.”
The city will be investigating whether or not the case warrants further action like an administrative citation or hearing, with fees starting at $250, Mejia continued.
Mejia had announced the investigation on Tuesday, noting that the maintenance of the trees in question was under the city’s jurisdiction, and that companies may only trim such trees with a permit. In a tweet thread, Mejia noted the union members’ “right to picket” and the importance of tree coverage in providing “significant environmental and public health benefits, especially during a heatwave.”
The tree trimming by Universal is the latest example of how environmental factors like heat, which have been worsened by the climate crisis, have been used as a bludgeon against workers and the labor movement. There is a large body of evidence establishing trees and similar greenery as a key step toward combating urban heat, with studies finding that tree cover can decrease air temperature in cities by 10 degrees and can prevent a significant portion of heat-related deaths in urban centers.
Meanwhile, the studios that actors and writers are striking against have been increasingly cruel in their tactics. Last week, Deadline reported that studio executives are planning to let workers “start losing their apartments and losing their houses” before coming back to the bargaining table in order to “break the WGA,” as one studio executive told the publication.
This comes after studios have offered unionized Hollywood actors and writers paltry terms for now-expired bargaining contracts, including a demand to be able to use background performers’ likenesses forever using artificial intelligence, as Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) leaders revealed last week.
In a statement on Monday, NBCUniversal Media did not deny trimming the trees. Rather, the company said that it trims the trees around this time every year — though this claim is dubious considering the city’s finding regarding the lack of permits and union members’ observation that the trees weren’t just trimmed but reduced to the bare minimum.
“You don’t trim or prune trees in mid-July in the middle of a heat wave,” Eric Haywood, WGA Board of Directors member, said to The Washington Post. “Those trees were butchered.”
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