The historic strike by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA has shut down Hollywood and brought widespread uncertainty, but an unlikely flashpoint of the labor unrest has emerged over the trimming of some trees on a block in Universal City.
Writers took to social media this week to express dismay at Universal Pictures for trimming the leaf cover of trees near where people were picketing. The temperatures have risen above 90 degrees in some parts of Los Angeles in recent days, creating a new challenge for demonstrators, some of whom have been on strike since early May.
“Quick shoutout to the good people at @UniversalPics for trimming the trees that gave our picket line shade right before a 90+ degree week,” wrote writer Chris Stephens, who included a photo of the trees along Barham Boulevard in the social media post.
Reached by phone, Stephens said he has regularly picketed at Universal since the writers’ strike started more than two months ago. The TV writer was there Friday, the day the actors staged their walkout, and noticed the trimmed trees when he returned Monday. He questioned why the tree trimming followed the start of the actors’ strike.
“We are certainly suspicious that something was afoot,” Stephens said, adding that picketing on the other side of Universal was obstructed by construction.
NBCUniversal said that the move was annual landscaping and that the company understood that "the safety tree trimming of the Ficus trees we did on Barham Blvd. has created unintended challenges for demonstrators."
"That was not our intention," the company's statement said. “In partnership with licensed arborists, we have pruned these trees annually at this time of year to ensure that the canopies are light ahead of the high wind season. We support the WGA and SAG's right to demonstrate, and are working to provide some shade coverage. We continue to openly communicate with the labor leaders on-site to work together during this time."
NBCUniversal on Wednesday confirmed that it had started providing shaded tents and water to picketers.
The trees are in the public right of way and fall under the jurisdiction of the city, officials said.
Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia said that the matter would be looked into. "Our office is investigating the tree trimming that occurred outside Universal Studios where workers, writers, and actors are exercising their right to picket," Mejia said in a tweet.
The city’s Department of Public Works said in a statement that it didn’t issue tree trimming permits for 3801 Barham Blvd. Mejia’s office, working with the Bureau of Street Services, found that no tree trimming permits were issued over the last three years for the location outside Universal Studios.
The Department of Public Works said it will issue a notice to comply to the owner of the Barham Boulevard property, which is standard when work occurs in the public right of way without permission. The case will also be investigated to see whether it warrants the issuance of an administrative citation or an administrative hearing, the statement said.
The dispute highlights how high tensions are in the city after SAG-AFTRA and its 160,000 members joined the WGA in its strike against the studios, after the actors' union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to come to a new contract agreement. Both unions have been targeting studios and productions for pickets.
"Them cutting the trees, it's almost like the strike — they are trying to cut off our livelihood, they are trying to take the oxygen out of everything that is going on, but we're not going to let it happen," said Dee Thompson, an actor and producer who said the trees provided shade and a safe haven during the heat.
Even the length of the cuts to the trees took some criticism.
“It’s unhealthy to give them a cut like they’re joining the military," said Jerry Rubin, the founder of Tree Hugging Friends, a local group dedicated to educating the public about trees. “It’s ludicrous. Any arborists worth their weight will tell you that.”
In another clash related to the streets surrounding the Universal lot, the writers and actors unions this week filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board against NBCUniversal in a dispute over disruptions to picketing efforts, alleging that sidewalks were blocked outside the Comcast-owned studio.
The unions said in their filing that the studio, which is one of many targeted by picketing writers and actors, engaged in unfair labor practices by limiting their ability to march outside the company's buildings.
According to the complaints, the studio "interfered with, coerced and restrained employees" in exercise of their rights.
The guilds alleged that sidewalks designated as picketing locations were blocked by construction fencing, forcing picketers onto the streets where two marchers were struck by a car. The unions did not say whether any individuals were injured.
They also alleged that NBCUniversal refused to provide barriers to establish pedestrian walkways for picketers to use.
The WGA and SAG-AFTRA had no immediate comment beyond the grievances they filed.
NBCUniversal said it was aware of the complaints and supported the unions' right to demonstrate safely.
"We strongly believe that the company has fulfilled our legal obligations under the National Labor Relations Act and we will cooperate with respect to any inquiries by the National Labor Relations Board on this issue," the studio said in a statement. "While we understand the timing of our multi-year construction project has created challenges for demonstrators, we continue to work with public agencies to increase access."
The Hollywood Reporter first reported on the labor complaint.
The WGA has been on strike since May 2. Its members picketed not only the studios' headquarters in Los Angeles and New York but also production locations to halt filmmaking, an effort that was largely effective.
The WGA had been in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers since March 20, but the sides failed to agree to a deal over issues including pay, streaming residuals and the use of artificial intelligence.
SAG-AFTRA joined the writers on picket lines Friday as temperatures soared in Los Angeles. The actors union also could not come to a deal with studios after five weeks of talks. It was seeking increases in pay to counter the impact of inflation as well as a share in revenues from streaming.
The AMPTP has blamed the actors' union for walking away from its proposals and disputed SAG-AFTRA's allegations that the studios had stonewalled the performers.
Times intern Miykael Stith contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.