‘Outdated Laws’: NBC Universal’s Anti-Union Tree-Trimming Results in Paltry Fine

An apparent attempt by NBCUniversal to interfere with worker strikes by pruning trees near its Hollywood lot amid rising summer temperatures will only cost the studio $250 despite heavy criticism by both people following the labor action and Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia.

“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 posted on Twitter on July 19 2023, a day after he announced an investigation into the matter. “Also, the City did not issue any tree trimming permits for the latest tree trimmings.”

Fact Check

Claim: NBCUniversal improperly pruned trees to interfere with workers strike

Description: NBCUniversal has been accused of interfering with worker strikes by pruning trees near its Hollywood lot amid raising summer temperatures to make picketing conditions less comfortable for striking workers. The studio was fined 0 for trimming the trees without a permit.

Rating: Likely True

Rating Explanation: Based on NBCUniversal’s actions and the responses from Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia, this claim is likely true. However, the studio has denied intentional wrongdoing.

The ficus trees located near the Universal Studios lot in Hollywood became the latest flashpoint in what has become a joint strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) after a photograph posted by comedian Chris Stephens showed that they had been heavily pruned:

“Quick shoutout to the good people at @UniversalPics for trimming the trees that gave our picket line shade right before a 90+ degree week,” Stephens wrote.

On July 21 2023, Mejia announced that Universal would only be fined $250 for trimming trees without a permit.

“Outdated laws limit penalties the City can issue,” Mejia wrote in a Twitter thread, saying that the bureau (a.k.a. StreetsLA) can only fine first-time offenders $250, with a $1,000 maximum for repeated violations. In this case, he said, the bureau did not find “signigicant damage” to the trees at NBCUniversal.

According to Mejia’s thread, however, the city does not have a mechanism for stopping unilateral tree trimmings of this nature; had the studio applied for a permit the city would have granted one automatically, without any way for the bureau to determine the validity of the request beforehand.

“Just like other city department, StreetsLA is underfunded and understaffed so our City can’t effectively protect our trees through timely & effective services,” he wrote. “In addition, outdated laws limit fine amounts and aren’t equitable across offenders, especially big corporations.”

He added:

Our Office recommends that the City invest more in StreetsLA’s Urban Forestry Division (UFD) and in more tree inspectors to better protect communities from the effects of climate change and improper tree trimmings given the magnitude of our 700,000+ city trees.

Our Office also recommends that the City update our laws regarding illegal tree trimmings, including updating fine amounts and penalties that reflect [the number] of trees illegally trimmed, not just by incident as improper tree trimmings can cause irreversible damage to our communities

The two trade unions are seeking more favorable working conditions and residuals for programs shown on streaming platforms. As accusations against the studio of retaliating against striking writers and performers, Universal claimed to Deadline Hollywood that it did not intend to create “unintended challenges” for the protesters.

“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,” a spokesperson said. “We continue to openly communicate with the labor leaders on-site to work together during this time.”

Local news site L.A. Taco interviewed a forester who questioned Universal’s justification for trimming the ficus trees in mid-summer:

Katherine McNenny, a citizen forester and advocate for a more robust and healthier urban forest in Los Angeles, tells L.A. TACO, “You never want to trim trees in the hot summer months. You always want to trim trees when it’s cooler.” The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) generally recommends that most trees be trimmed during the dormant season.

“I saw the photos. Not only were the trees trimmed in the wrong time of year…but also the trees were ‘topped,’” McNenny said, referring to the process of cutting the tallest limbs of a tree down to reduce its size. The American National Standard Institute’s (ANSI) pruning standards define topping as an “unacceptable pruning practice for trees.”

The city formally adopted and enforces ISA and ANSI pruning guidelines and standards, according to the Los Angeles Urban Forestry Division.

Writers and actors say that the tree trimming comes after NBCUniversal initiated a sidewalk construction project to similarly deter striking workers from gathering outside their property.

The ANSI pruning guidelines can be found here. (ISA guidelines are referenced here.)

Less than a week before Stephens’ photographs brought the tree issue to light, the studio had been accused of interfering with striking WGA members’ ability to picket safely outside the studio lot by increasing construction efforts. A petition posted online by the guild said:

First one sidewalk was fenced in by scaffolding. Then another. Within four weeks, NBC Universal had fenced in and demolished every sidewalk surrounding Gates 1, 2, 4, and 5—all of which were gates with active picketing. Gates 1 and 5, which do not have traffic lights or crosswalks, are now inaccessible except by walking in a lane of oncoming traffic which creates an obvious significant safety risk to picketers. At times, and without any prior warning, the scaffolding has fully blocked pedestrian walk signs, eliminated curb ramps that serve as ADA-accessible entry points, and prevented pedestrians from accessing the call buttons required to safely cross a wide, busy street.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the WGA has filed a grievance to the National Labor Relations Board over the issue. The studio has, once again, denied any wrongdoing.

“We strongly believe that the company has fulfilled our legal obligations under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and we will cooperate with respect to any inquiries by the National Labor Relations Board on this issue,” Universal said. “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. We support the unions’ rights to demonstrate safely.”

The Urban Forestry Division did not respond to a request for comment. Neither SAG-AFTRA nor Universal have returned requests for comment.

Update 7/22/2023, 11:26 p.m.: Updated with further comments from Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia. — ag