Image Credit: @ChrisStephensMD on Twitter
Striking writers tweeted over the weekend that Universal Pictures had trimmed the Ficus trees in front of the studio that provided shade to their picket line. In response, Universal Pictures claimed to Deadline that it “pruned these trees annually at this time of year.”
On Wednesday, both SAG-AFTRA and the WGA filed formal unfair labor practice charges against Universal Pictures for retaliating against picketers. SAG-AFTRA claimed that the studio had tried to direct the picket line to an unsafe construction site across the street. When workers picketed in front of the studio instead, SAG-AFTRA alleges that the studio trimmed the trees in response. An investigation by the city of Los Angeles found that no permits had been issued for the trimming—meaning that Universal Pictures had trimmed the trees in violation of city policy.The SAG-AFTRA charge, obtained by Motherboard, claims that Universal Pictures was “interfering with lawful picketing activity, by designating as picketing locations areas where the public sidewalks have been covered up with construction fencing, forcing picketers to patrol in busy streets with significant car traffic where two picketers have already been struck by a car, and by refusing to provide K-rail barriers to establish pedestrian walkways for picketers to use, after Los Angeles Police Department advised the employer weeks ago in the interest of public safety to do so.” WGA strikers told Deadline that they would remain on the picket line despite the safety hazards. SAG-AFTRA told Motherboard in a statement, however, that it could not safely send its members to the Universal Pictures picket line.
After an investigation, Los Angeles government officials said Universal did not have a permit to trim the trees.“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,” wrote LA city controller Kenneth Mejia in a tweet. “Also, the City did not issue any tree trimming permits for the latest tree trimmings.”
“SAG-AFTRA appreciates these efforts to ensure our members have a safe place to exercise their federal rights to join picket lines to demand a fair contract,” a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson told Motherboard, referring to the city’s investigation of the tree-trimming. “Suspiciously timed construction that has forced picketers into streets without proper safety rails, and now tree trimming eliminating shade during a record heatwave, has forced SAG-AFTRA to determine that it cannot safely send its members to picket at NBCUniversal.” A WGA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.When the investigation was first announced on Tuesday, Mejia shared two photos of the Ficus trees in front of the studio before and after the trimmings. The first photo showed a row of lush green trees, critical to providing shade in a city that faced temperatures of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit over the past week. The second image showed the same trees, now barren and providing no shade.
A Universal Pictures spokesperson told Motherboard in an email, “We understand 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. 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.” The spokesperson also said that the studio was working to provide accommodations for picketers, such as pop-up tents and water.