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Universal Studios might have invoked the wrath of California's Tree Law

An image from Day 5 of the strikes in Burbank, California.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
An image from Day 5 of the strikes in Burbank, California.

Who are they? A row of ficus trees that were trimmed earlier this week for unclear reasons.

  • On Monday, July 17th, writer and SAG striker Chris Stephens shared a photo of a row of the trees outside of the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles. The trees had their branches and leaves trimmed down suddenly over the course of the weekend.
  • Many believe that the tree-trimming was a ploy to take away shade from striking SAG-AFTRA members, picketing Hollywood's biggest studios – including Universal Pictures – for what they say are exploitative business practices and unfair contracts.
  • NPR has reached out to Universal Pictures for additional comment. No response has been received at the time of publication.
  • What's the big deal? As the week has gone on, one thing has become clear: whoever trimmed those trees was not given the authority to do so by the city of Los Angeles.

  • LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia announced Tuesday that his office is investigating the trimming. Mejia later reported that no tree-trimming permits had been issued for the stretch of land outside of Universal Studios in at least three years, including for the most recent trimming.
  • Since the trees are considered public property, their maintenance is under the jurisdiction of city entities like the Department of Public Works' Bureau of Street Services.
  • If you've seen users online gleefully invoking the wrath of "tree law," that's because trimming trees without the proper permits can come with some heavy fines and penalties. According to Mejia's tweets, the citations can start at $250, and go up from there.
  • Both Sag-AFTRA and the WGA have filed formal unfair labor practice charges against Universal as a result.
  • What are people saying?

    Here's a statement Universal gave to Deadline:

    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. 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.

    A video about how this pruning may impact the Ficus trees from arborist and TikToker Lucas the Lorax:

    And part of the SAG-AFTRA charge, obtained by Motherboard:

    [Universal 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.

    So, what now?

  • The Urban Forestry Division and Streets LA are investigating whether a citation can be issued, according to Los Angeles Councilmember Nithya Raman
  • The strike continues on for the hundreds of thousands of members of Sag-AFTRA and the WGA – the first dual strike for the unions since 1960. 
  • Learn more:

  • 3 lessons past Hollywood strikes can teach us about the current moment
  • SAG-AFTRA joins the biggest Hollywood strike in decades
  • We break down the actors and writers strikes
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.