The once-leafy ficus trees lining the sidewalks outside of the Universal lot got a haircut earlier this week. As comedian and TV writer Chris Stephens first noted, this also meant that the striking Writers Guild members, who have been picketing since May, were left without any shade on 90-plus-degree days. What an odd coincidence. Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia is reportedly investigating the trim, given that the trees are managed by the city (although businesses can obtain permits to trim them, something Universal Studios did not do). The studio claimed that its sudden urge to cut back the trees just days after actors joined the writers on strike was simply routine maintenance. “We understand that the safety tree trimming of the Ficus trees we did on Barham Boulevard has created unintended challenges for demonstrators,” an NBCUniversal spokesperson told the Washington Post. “That was not our intention.” (Both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, also on strike, have filed unlawful labor-practice charges about the unsafe picketing sites at Universal Studios.)
The environment is a tool in any kind of union action. In 2021, during Amazon workers’ historic bid to unionize in Alabama, the company notoriously intervened with county officials to change the timing on a traffic light outside of its warehouse; workers once used the stoplight to talk to other workers heading to the warehouse. The length of the red light was subsequently shortened, meaning no more red-light chats about the union drive. (The union effort ultimately failed.)
The WGA is also circulating a petition that accuses NBCUniversal of starting a construction project around a picket line on Lankershim Boulevard that has forced picketers onto the road. The Labor Relations Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department recommended the studio set up a pedestrian lane, but so far it hasn’t.
So, sure, maybe the trees just needed a trim in the middle of summer. Or maybe a multibillion-dollar company is using the built environment to bust up a strike. Maybe this is a question that AI can work out for them.