Tree Law: Hollywood Producers Really Are Villains

As you are no doubt aware, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are both on strike over absurdly low pay, while studio executives rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the first time in around 60 years that both writers and actors have been on strike together, and when you dig into the issue, it’s not hard to see why. Because streaming is new, existing labor agreements don’t apply to it, and under capitalism, everything is allowed for the rich by default, so the bosses get a nice little window where they’re allowed to just not pay their workers for the success of the products they generate, and suffer no consequences.

This trend of finding “clever” ways to underpay workers is just part of capitalism. I don’t know if paying workers is the expense that capitalists resent the most, but it’s clear that they very much want slaves, not paid professionals. Like all other capitalists, they want to pay as little as possible to the people who make them their millions.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “now hang on – that’s a little extreme, isn’t it? These people aren’t literally cartoon villains, so they’ve got feelings, right?” Well, they’re not cartoon villains, but they might as well be. I like to describe strikes as a form of siege, and I mean that quite literally. Lives are on the line, and if the peasant surrounding the castle don’t have enough supplies, they stand to lose everything. Hollywood executives also see it that way, and they’ve made clear that they intend to destroy lives before fairly paying the people who created their wealth:

According to a recent Deadline report, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is in the strike for the long haul—with a plan to let the Writers Guild of America (WGA) “bleed out” before resuming negotiations. “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” one source told the trade.

I’ve talked before about how capitalists and the government collude to use desperation as a very literal weapon against the working class, and this is yet another example of that. Hollywood has a long history of going out of its way to screw anyone who might cut into the only thing they actually care about, which is profit. While these obscenely wealthy executives and owners often plead poverty when opposing fair pay, it’s nice to have the reality that’s always been obvious, made explicit. The only limit on what they do, is what they think they can get away with or afford the penalty for. That includes holding out till people lose their homes, but it also includes pettier efforts to attack striking workers, like aggressively pruning trees, out of season, right where they would otherwise provide shade and comfort for striking workers:

The image shows a row of curbside trees along a street. The trees have almost no leaves at all, having had their entire crowns cut off. They are casting sparse shadows on the sidewalk (bottom left corner of the picture), and you can see a small garden pavilion shading a table, a couple chairs, and some boxes. Closer to the camera, in the bottom left corner, there are a couple coolers. On the bottom center and right, there are five traffic cones on the edges of a stack of what look like big steel or rubber plates. You can see a glass building in the background, along with some un-pruned trees. The sky is blue with wisps of white cloud.

The image shows a row of curbside trees along a street. The trees have almost no leaves at all, having had their entire crowns cut off. They are casting sparse shadows on the sidewalk (bottom left corner of the picture), and you can see a small garden pavilion shading a table, a couple chairs, and some boxes. Closer to the camera, in the bottom left corner, there are a couple coolers. On the bottom center and right, there are five traffic cones on the edges of a stack of what look like big steel or rubber plates. You can see a glass building in the background, along with some un-pruned trees. The sky is blue with wisps of white cloud.

The Los Angeles city controller’s office says it is investigating the trimming of tree branches on a stretch of roadway outside Universal Studios. The studio’s owners NBC Universal have denied making conditions for striking actors and writers more difficult in the intense heat.

In a series of posts on social media, LA city controller Kenneth Mejia said that the trees concerned are “LA City managed”, and that while public works agency StreetsLA are responsible for tree maintenance “a business can also obtain a permit to trim a tree”.

Strikers on picket outside Universal Studios’ Gate 8, on Barham Blvd, first reported the work on Monday, complaining that a line of ficus trees that had provided shade from what is forecast to this week become 33C (91F) heat had been severely cut back.

In a statement to Deadline, NBC Universal denied it had targeted strikers: “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 … We support the WGA and Sag’s right to demonstrate, and are working to provide some shade coverage.”

NBC Universal has also denied that it is refusing to create safe pathways for strikers around ongoing construction work on another part of its studio site, after the writers’ union WGA and actors’ union Sag-Aftra filed a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The unions have complained that NBC Universal have not installed a temporary pedestrian lane in Lankershim Blvd, resulting in dangerous conditions for strikers attempting to maintain a protest there, and that “picketers [are forced] to patrol in busy streets with significant car traffic where two picketers have already been struck by a car”.


The reason you don’t usually prune in July, is that they spend the summer storing resources in their root system, before going dormant, at least above ground, in the winter. If you prune in the summer you are starving the trees, and possibly making them grow out of season to try to make up for the loss:

In general, avoid pruning landscape trees in mid- to late summer (July, August and September), unless it’s very light, because you can induce an off-season growth spurt, which can leave some species, such as ficus, vulnerable to freeze damage. Hot-weather pruning can also delay or shorten dormancy for deciduous trees and is especially damaging to eucalyptus and pines.

There’s no real horticultural reason for the pruning, so it seems as though it was done purely to make picketing workers suffer more during a heat wave. It did, however, ping some people’s legal radar, leading Universal Studios to be reported for a potential violation of California Tree Law, and it seems that LA is investigating:

The city has said that they did not issue a permit for this pruning. I hope Universal gets slapped with a maximum penalty, but I doubt that will do much. I’ve had some trouble finding what potential penalties they might face, but from what I can tell, the biggest possible expense would be if they’re forced to replace the trees, plus a fine. It has oft been said that a fine just means that it’s legal if you’re rich enough, and there’s no question that these corporations are rich enough, even if they do have to replace the trees. No, the only way to hold them accountable, within the system as it exists, is for everyone to show solidarity for striking workers, and make it clear that if the industry refuses to pay its workers, the the industry will no longer have any workers to exploit.

This is a problem that will never actually go away, in a capitalist society, because such a society most empowers those whose only purpose in life is the ruthless exploitation, use, and abuse of other human beings. When someone creates a new and useful technology, capitalists look at it and see a new way to avoid paying workers. That is the core of what capitalism is, and why there will always be a need for strong unions within this economic system. Without that pressure from the bottom, which capitalists and the government work so hard to eliminate, the pathological greed of the owning class will always consume the entire system, resulting in monopolies, poverty, and devastating crashes.

In the end, it comes down to this: Strike actions are a compromise. They are the moderate option – a polite siege, if you will. The workers are simply withholding their labor. They are not literally laying siege to the homes of their overlords. They are not taking the wealth they are owed by force. The executives here are just fine taking from those poorer than themselves – it’s basically their only real job – but they seem to have forgotten that that can go both ways, it’s just that the folks at the bottom don’t have cops to do the actual violence for them. I’ll let Ron Pearlman explain:



  1. says

    The type of pruning shown in the picture is suitable for fast-growing trees just before or at the very start of the growth season early in spring.

    Fig trees (I assume Ficus carica) are very resilient. They can be pollarded/coppiced and thus trimmed even every year like this, but not now.

    Trimming trees like this in July in the middle of a heatwave is nonsense and no arborist, ever, would recommend that as a matter of course. There might be some justification for removing branches at this time to reduce evaporation for trees with constrained root systems, but for that to be done properly, there needs to be left enough fresh year’s growth untrimmed, not uniformly cut every branch like in these pictures. Newly grown twigs produce growth-inhibiting hormones and if most of freshly grown twigs are removed mid-summer, it will result in a new growth spur. This can kill the tree if it does not have enough water for that growth. And if it does have enough water, it can happen that this new growth won’t finish developing a hard wooden core and create dormant buds before the onset of winter frost and thus will freeze in the fall, again, killing the tree. And if the tree per chance survives, it will be seriously weakened the following year.

    Big cuts like these at this time of year won’t develop calluses before winter either. leading first to significant loss of water now and a heightened risk of fungal infection in winter.

    Anyone who worked with trees and/or studied them would see this as extremely bad tree care. If the trees are cut like this regularly, the people responsible for scheduling the trimmings should be fired for gross incompetence. And if the trees were indeed trimmed maliciously, a hefty fine is the least thing that should happen.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Serious question: everyone knows who the, ahem, motherfuckers are. It is America. How long before one is shot?

  3. Ridana says

    Winter freezing is unlikely to be an issue in Los Angeles, where night time lows in Dec are around 45-50 F, fortunately for these trees.

    But hopefully they will be fined, since doing pretty much anything to your street trees, except maybe lopping off a branch interfering with sidewalk traffic (technically also illegal, but no one is likely to report you for cutting back one or two low hanging branches), is prohibited without a permit. The city’s supposed to do that, so if it needs doing, you call the city crews in.

  4. says

    As I’ve noted elsewhere: The “wait until they starve” strategy, which is explicitly being aimed at people who have been systematically underpaid for decades so that the vast majority of them *already have* day jobs and shit, doesn’t seem to have been particularly well thought-out.

  5. Dunc says

    No, they’re not cartoon villains – they’re realistic, well-rounded villains, with complex and believable motivations. Like Gul Dukat in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, they not only believe themselves to be unfairly maligned, but are genuinely put out that their victims don’t appreciate and even love them. Now there was some writing and acting you’re not going to get from an AI…

  6. Dunc says

    Sorry, unclosed tag… When will AI get good enough that the autocorrect on an Android keyboard will understand HTML tags?

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @5 – two things about DS9:
    1. Marc Alaimo never felt appreciated. It came across REALLY strongly in the recent doc about the show. If you’ve not seen it, you really need to.
    2. Michael Dorns contract stipulated that while the show was shooting, he wasn’t allowed to indulge his hobby… which was flying his collection of fighter jets. Some actors aren’t badly paid…

  8. Dunc says

    @7: The doc isn’t that recent anymore! I’ve seen it in the cinema, I own it on Blu-Ray, I have one of the special backer rewards, and I think my name’s in the credits somewhere… But yes, essential viewing. As for Marc Alaimo, I’m never quite sure if he’s being serious or if there’s just a long-running in-joke amongst the cast and crew there.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I dunno – he seemed pretty upset. But then y’know… actor.

  10. StevoR says

    Bastards! Absolute, npetty tree-mutilating bastards. The bosses here natch.

    @sonofrojblake : “Some actors aren’t badly paid…

    Emphasis on first word – some. A lot of others are really badly paid. Oh & heaven forfend that just because someone can act means they can’t also feel real emotions too coz yeah.

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