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Recalling a Union Brother Who Is Kagan’s Brother

Published: June 29, 2010

Publication: The New York Times

By Michael Wilson

The wall behind the desk on the sixth floor of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 headquarters in Manhattan is pocked by dozens of scattershot tacks, as if someone fired them out of a shotgun at the guy in the chair, which is a lot like how it can feel working there.

Ten years ago, a subway car worker named Marc Kagan sat in the desk in a little office in the interior side of the hallway, a room without windows, like where you want to be in a tornado strike. He was the assistant to the former Local 100 president, Roger Toussaint. They were close friends, but they had a falling-out in 2002, and Mr. Kagan left the union job and the subway system soon after. He is remembered for his strong work ethic and otherworldly powers of organization amid dunes of paperwork.

But his legacy in the transit system may expand further. As far as anyone can recall, no subway hardhat has ever had a sister go on to become a United States Supreme Court justice.

“Never,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer with the union, who once shared this little office with the brother of Elena Kagan, who is having her confirmation hearings this week and is expected to be appointed to the high court. “But it depends where you pull people from.”

Arthur Z. Schwartz in the transit workers’ union office he used to share with Marc Kagan, brother of the Supreme Court nominee. CreditTina Fineberg for The New York Times 

The desk is his now. He and Mr. Kagan, now a Bronx schoolteacher, are still friendly, but this was a surprise. “I didn’t even know he had a sister,” Mr. Schwartz said on Tuesday.

He said Mr. Kagan unfailingly visited Hunter College High School every afternoon to pick up his daughter and bring her home before returning to the office. That was Mr. Schwartz’s first clue. “When they announced her nomination and they said her family was very involved in Hunter High School, I said, ‘It’s got to be.’ Then I looked at her picture, and said, ‘That’s Marc.’ ”

He pointed out a blown-up picture in the hall, of transit workers marching in protest across the Brooklyn Bridge. There, behind the head of the march, was Mr. Kagan. He has a slight beard, but the resemblance is quickly seen.

On the wall behind Mr. Schwartz, a handwritten sign reads, “Important Dates Leading to Contract 2006,” as if everyone were too busy to have taken it down over the last four years. Those dates were important indeed, following the three-day transit strike of December 2005 that left New Yorkers tramping and hitchhiking and griping their way to work just before Christmas.

It was quiet in the union halls on Tuesday. There was an executive board meeting going on behind one of the closed doors. A sign near the elevators reads, “Committee for a Little Less Corruption at the M.T.A.

Mr. Schwartz praised his former colleague’s attention to detail. “We’re looking at millions of dollars, and he’s worried about this little work rule here,” he said.

These are tough times for the city’s transit workers, as the system reels in subway and bus lines and lays off employees. But it was a different sort of pain that was drawing the attention of the public on Tuesday. Jim Gannon, a spokesman for the union, said he had requests from reporters to speak with a bus driver who was beaten by a drunken rider on Monday in Brooklyn. The rider had complained that the bus was not getting to his destination quickly enough.

Mr. Schwartz’s office is decorated with a vintage “TWU on Strike” poster, and he himself hung a print of a piece of folk art, “Don’t Mourn, Organize,” by Ralph Fasanella, in 2001. He is a union man through and through. The ring tone on his cellphone plays Woody Guthrie singing “This Land is Your Land.” It runs all the way through the verse of ribbon of highway before going to voice mail.

He follows the news of the nomination hearings. Somewhere, Ms. Kagan’s second day of hearings before a Senate committee was airing, but in this room, there was no television in sight.

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