Elena Kagan and Family: Best of the Upper Left Side, with a Pro-Union Brother


It’s about time that a child of Manhattan’s Upper Left Side was nominated for the Supreme Court. There is no better school for debate than the corridors of upper Broadway and the aisles of Zabar’s, where the opinions are stronger than the garlic bagels.

Obama nominee Elena Kagan, 50, has impeccable ULS credentials and genes: Mom Gloria taught public school’s best and brightest at Hunter College Elementary School; dad Robert was a lawyer who represented tenants. Robert Kagan was chairman of Community Board #7 in the 1970s and was a fierce battler against the superhighway that City Hall wanted to pave along the Hudson River and through Riverside Park, which came to be known as Westway. Kagan Sr. was one of a couple dozen early anti-Westway protestors, and he showed up at a City Hall briefing in November, 1974, to denounce the plan. “A six-lane proposal is just not an acceptable proposal,” he told the Times. “I am convinced this plan induces new traffic in Manhattan.”

Then there’s Kagan’s brother, Marc, who was a transit worker and union reformer in Transport Workers Local 100. Marc Kagan was one of former Local 100 leader Roger Toussaint’s top aides until the two had a falling out in 2003. That’s par for the course for the Upper Left Side, where if you can’t launch two feuds before lunch, the day’s a waste.

Marc Kagan became a teacher and he’s no less a fierce supporter of union rights in his new union. In a letter in last week’s Chief-Leader, he takes a swipe at schools chancellor Joel Klein’s notion that seniority rules shouldn’t apply to upcoming teacher layoffs. He goes on to offer a full-throated defense of unionism, one that’s likely to light up the eyes of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell as he looks around for something to throw at the new White House nominee. Marc Kagan writes:

“Here’s a heretical thought: the actual purpose of unions is to improve workers’ lives by challenging the free market: to win a higher than “market” wage, to make it hard for the employer to change working conditions or fire the higher-paid worker. We shouldn’t hide these ideas under a rock like we’re ashamed of them; just the opposite. When unions won the 8-hour day, or the weekend, or pension plans, unions defended the idea that working people’s lives and rights were socially more important than employers’ profits and rights. And we said that those victories would tend to spread, even into nonunionized sectors, and generally make people’s lives better. And that was true, for decades.

“Today we are playing this movie backwards. As people in the nonunion sector have faced big roll-backs in wages and benefits, we hear them complain that unionized workers should also “give back.” It’s an indication that we have, at least temporarily, lost the battle of ideas in this country, that we can’t successfully explain to our fellow workers that it is in their interests too if we are able to hold the line somewhere, rather than engage in a frantic race to the bottom.”

Here’s hoping Sister Elena brings the same moxie to the court.