Photo by Marc Campos
Urban & Environmental Policy

Meet Claire Cahen of Urban & Environmental Policy, an urbanist, researcher and educator, who studies municipal austerity and public sector union renewal.

Claire Cahen headshot

Assistant Professor Claire Cahen comes to Occidental from Virginia Tech, where she was an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning. Cahen has an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in environmental psychology from the City University of New York and a B.A. in English from Pomona. An urbanist, researcher, and educator, Cahen studies municipal austerity and public sector union renewal—how workers are responding to decades of cuts to public services, how they are forming new labor-community alliances in the process, and the relationship between inequality and the privatization of public goods, especially public education. Her work has been published in Environment and Planning D, the Journal of Race Ethnicity and the City, and Antipode.

What attracted you to Occidental?

After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a union organizer in Los Angeles for four years. Even back then, many of my co-workers came from Occidental and, specifically, from the Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) department. The department was known for nurturing community and labor leaders, for introducing students to organizing and fostering critical analysis on pressing issues. It is a dream to be back in L.A. with a chance to carry forth Occidental and UEP’s commitments.

You write about what it takes for workers to revive the labor movement after decades of union decline. Given the rash of strikes that have occurred in recent months—from actors and writers to auto workers and the healthcare industry—what does this say about the future of organized labor?

The strike wave occurring across the U.S. and, notably in our backyard in L.A., is a testament to rising expectations about what workers deserve—on and off the job. Standards have been steadily declining in each of the industries that you mentioned. Moreover, the workers in these industries—be they autoworkers, writers, or nurses—understand that their jobs in the future might not just be “gigged” but eliminated via automation. We are at an inflection point: if workers do not stand up collectively, inequality and class polarization will continue to accelerate. More and more workers in so-called “middle class” professions will be pushed to the brink of survival. At the same time, workers know that jobs and wages used to be better not so very long ago. They believe that conditions can—indeed, must—be improved again. This is a very positive sign for the future of organized labor.

Urban & Environmental Policy is one of Occidental’s signature programs. Do you have a favorite class that you are teaching, and why?

I am teaching a Community Organizing class, which I love. The class involves a good mix of history, theory, contemporary case studies, and practice. We do periodic role-plays of community meetings and labor negotiations. It is humbling to see how much students grow throughout the semester. In their first role-play, they may be shy or uncertain. By mid-semester, they are not just more confident; they demonstrate real organizing skills and savvy. They are honing their craft. It is moving and powerful to see.