Striking writers throw shade at NBCUniversal over tree trimming

Side-by-side photos show trees providing shade to the left, then those trees extensively trimmed on the right.
Two photos from WGA members’ picket line on Barham Boulevard outside Universal Studios show trees before and after the studio trimmed off their canopies, which had provided shade to striking writers and actors during the recent heat wave.
(Chris Stephens)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, July 20.

When Chris Stephens and his fellow striking writers left their picket post outside Universal Studios on Friday, the Ficus trees lining the sidewalk of Barham Avenue had full canopies, giving picketers a shaded space to rest between stints marching the sunny crosswalk.

But when they returned to the studio gate Monday morning, the trees had been extensively trimmed, leaving picketers without a source of shade in the midst of Southland’s record-breaking heat wave.


For Chris and other writers, it wasn’t a stretch to suspect NBCUniversal was behind the trimming, and many suggested the studio had acted intentionally. WGA members striking on the other side of the Universal Studios lot have also been dealing with ill-timed studio upgrades, with new construction work obstructing sidewalk space. WGA and SAG-AFTRA each filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board against NBCUniversal.

Chris also thought of the instantly infamous Deadline story in which an unnamed member of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said the big studios’ plan is to drag out the labor dispute until writers “start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

“You can look at how things have shaken out for this entire strike so far,” Chris said. “Everything kind of led us to that conclusion based on the treatment of us by the studios.”

So he tweeted a photo of the nearly bare Ficus trees, calling out NBCUniversal.

His tweet quickly soared, garnering thousands of retweets and tens of millions of views.

“I did not know that it was going to start a debate over trimming versus pruning,” Chris told me Wednesday. “As things usually do when you put them on the internet, everyone that loves trees and everyone that hates trees comes out to have arguments underneath the things you said. It was a really wild to see it explode the way it did.”

The strong response also bolstered his stance on the importance of workers’ rights, as he explained:


“It’s easy to feel alone out there when it’s hot and you see the same people every day and you’re in a bubble of: ‘Who knows what’s happening? Who knows when this is going to end?’ And then I take a picture ... and seeing a tremendous outpouring of people all across the country — and the world really — to what’s being done, it’s great. It really solidifies my position on all of these things.”

By Tuesday, NBCUniversal had claimed responsibility for the tree trimming and L.A. City Controller Kenneth Mejia announced his office had launched an investigation, later adding that no permits had been issued to trim the city-managed trees outside the studio.

Mejia said the city’s Urban Forestry Division and StreetsLA’s enforcement division would determine “if this case warrants the issuance of an administrative citation or hearing.”

In a statement, NBC Universal said 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 studio wrote. “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.”

‘In it for the long haul’

Chris believes the studio’s explanation “doesn’t really add up to the truth.”

As for conditions picketing in 90-plus degree heat without the reprieve of tree shade, Chris said it’s been “physically a little more draining.”


“But in terms of spirit ... the resolve has never been higher,” he added. “I think it has the exact opposite reactions that the studios are hoping for, where it really binds us closer together. Everyone on that picket line is in it for the long haul.”

And though picketers say the studio has since brought them water and tents for shade, he’s not feeling too grateful.

“It’s just one olive branch, when they took a lot more branches than that,” he said.

A man and woman stand with their dog on a sidewalk holding a WGA union picket sign.
Writer Chris Stephens with his wife and fellow writer, Alisha Ketry, and their dog, Monty, at a WGA picket line outside Universal Studios. The trees behind them were extensively trimmed by the studio over the weekend.
(Chris Stephens)

Chris, 34, isn’t technically in the WGA. He’d recently been hired for his first TV writing job after years trying to break into the industry, while he drove for Postmates and took other gig jobs to make ends meet. His wife, Alisha Ketry, is also a writer and has been a WGA member for six years.

Chris was set to officially join the guild, but then the strike happened and the show he was going to work on was delayed. He’s a “pre-WGA” member, but remains on the Barham Boulevard picket line with Alisha, fellow writers and some SAG members.

“I can chalk [it] up to bad luck, but at the same time, I’m fighting for my right to have a job that I can support my family with,” he said. “It’s bigger than that feeling of like, ‘Oh, why me? Why now?’ It’s about now is the time that we have to do this together — or else, it’s never going to happen.”


Other disruptions outside the studio

As noted above, this isn’t the only issue striking union members have dealt with while picketing around Universal Studios. WGA leaders say sidewalk space has been obstructed by construction equipment for weeks and accuse the studio of refusing to add barriers to create pedestrian walkways for picketers and other pedestrians.

“The unions said in their filing that the [NBC Universal] engaged in unfair labor practices by limiting their ability to march outside the studio’s buildings,” my colleagues Anousha Sakoui and Dakota Smith reported.

In a statement, NBCUniversal said it “will cooperate with respect to any inquiries by the National Labor Relations Board on this issue.”

“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,” studio officials wrote.

The ongoing dispute had so far kept SAG-AFTRA from designating the Universal Studios spots as official picketing locations, though Rob Forman, strike captain for the WGA group picketing on the Lankershim Boulevard side, said they expect that will change once the issue is resolved.

“It puts a little fire in your belly,” Forman said, “[and] a determination to say we have a right to be here, we have a legal and genuine labor dispute with this employer, and nothing that they’re going to do is going to dissuade us from safely picketing.”


Forman said the disruptions writers and actors have faced around the studio have affected picketers’ safety, especially in the middle of a heat wave.

“I believe that a series of coincidences has piled up,” he said. “I can’t ascribe nefarious intent to it, but it sure is a coincidence.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


Six California restaurants have received coveted Michelin stars for the first time, joining dozens of other state eateries featured in this year’s just-released dining guide. Among the newly starred restaurants, two are in Southern California, one is on the Central Coast and three are in Northern California. Los Angeles Times

California could make it easier to open night markets and other open-air gatherings in communities across the state. A forthcoming Assembly bill aims to minimize the bureaucratic hoop-jumping in an effort to revitalize city centers that emptied during the pandemic. Los Angeles Times



A large field of stacked rocks in a forest along the lower Yosemite Falls trail in Yosemite Valley.
A large field of stacked rocks, or cairns, along the lower Yosemite Falls trail on July 9 in Yosemite Valley. The park said rock cairn building should be left to rangers and trail workers.
(Marc Martin / Los Angeles Times)

Rangers have a message for visitors to Yosemite National Park: Go kick rocks. Some parkgoers have been stacking up large rock towers, called cairns, which NPS officials say go against Leave No Trace ethics meant to reduce humans’ effects on the environment. So rangers are giving everyone permission to topple cairns they encounter. Los Angeles Times

I know journalists should be impartial, but I can’t help but root for Otter 841. Wildlife authorities are after the Santa Cruz local after several headline-making close encounters with surfers, in which the bold otter swiped surfboards and even rode some waves. Officials say they have to remove the now-famous otter due to the safety risks to both her and humans, but some in Santa Cruz feel it’s unfair to the pull the native mammal out of her environment — and they’re celebrating her skills in evading capture so far. The Mercury News


The president of Stanford University announced he will resign following an investigation into claims of fraud and data manipulation of research he supervised. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist and biotech entrepreneur, was cleared of direct involvement in fraud or falsification of scientific data, though the panel reviewing the research said he didn’t do enough to prevent the unethical action of fellow researchers. Los Angeles Times


With the U.S. Supreme Court’s expansion of the 2nd Amendment, justices could soon decide if gun rights extend to dangerous people and dangerous weapons. That puts a slate of gun control laws — including assault weapons bans and red-flag laws — enacted by California and other blue states in peril. Los Angeles Times

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is wrapped up in a legal battle over control of her late husband’s trust. The 90-year-old Democrat has asked a court to make her daughter a successor trustee, alleging that current trustees have not provided funds to help her pay medical bills incurred after she became ill from shingles. Los Angeles Times


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As The Roxy prepares to mark 50 years on Sunset Boulevard, Steve Appleford explores the the iconic venue’s rich, loud history. “Beloved nightclubs come and go,” he wrote,” but the Roxy has few peers in L.A. or elsewhere, both a hallowed venue where rock gods minted their legends and a still-thriving venue at the heart of the city’s musical nightlife.” Los Angeles Times

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Today’s California landmark is from Robin Barber of Pahrump, Nev.: the “breathtaking” Santa Barbara County coast.

A view of the Santa Barbara County coast on a sunny day, showing trees, the ocean and a strip  of road.
A view of the Santa Barbara County coast.
(Robin Barber)

Robin writes:

The coast of Santa Barbara itself is a landmark for many reasons. [The] area ... actually took on fire from the enemy [during WWII]. You can also see the historic oil rigs not far from shore. And we can’t forget the beautiful whales that traffic the waters, along with the otters and other marine life.


What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.

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