Theodore W. Kheel, Labor Mediator, Arbitrator in New York, Dies at Age 96

Theodore Kheel, a New York labor mediator who helped resolve more than 30,000 disputes, including an East Coast longshoremen’s strike in 1962 and the city’s 114- day newspaper union walkout the next year, has died. He was 96.

Kheel died on Nov. 12, the New York Times reported. His death was confirmed yesterday by Edward Nebb, a family spokesman, the Times said.

Kheel also mediated an end to a national railroad strike in 1964 and helped avert another one in 1967, according to the Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School. He served as adviser to every mayor from William O’Dwyer (1946- 1950) to Abraham Beame (1974-1977), as well as Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford.

Known as a voice of reason amid a cacophony of opposing views, Kheel protected management rights while demanding fairness for workers. He would ask both sides to tell him, in front of their opponents, exactly what they wanted so he could identify the key issues. BusinessWeek, now Bloomberg Businessweek, called him “the master locksmith of deadlock bargaining.”

“The mediator is a friend of enemies,” Kheel told the New York Times in 2004, when he was 90. “Your goal is agreement. It’s a form of enlightenment, really, a religious ethic.”

He sometimes practiced psychology to reach an accord. Even when talks dragged on as deadlines loomed, Kheel would leave the negotiating table and have dinner at some well-known New York restaurant.

World Trade Center

Kheel spent more than 50 years advocating the use of mass transit instead of automobiles. In 1957, decades before anyone had heard of global warming, he wrote a 17-page report on why mass transportation should be subsidized and not financed by passenger fares. Eight years later he proposed doubling the 50- cent toll on New York bridges and tunnels, drawing the ire of the city’s planning czar, Robert Moses.

In 2007, he called for congestion pricing on motor vehicles entering the busiest streets, a plan used in London and proposed by New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

For Kheel, the Port Authority of New and New Jersey, a bi- state agency, was public enemy No. 1. Attempting to force the authority to address the city’s traffic problems by subsidizing mass transit, he attacked its policies in newspapers, testified at state hearings and met with the governors of both states.

Punta Cana

In a 1969 article in New York magazine titled “How the Port Authority Is Strangling New York,” Kheel argued against the agency’s planned development of the Twin Towers.

“The World Trade Center is a striking example of socialism at its worst -- a state agency needlessly and inefficiently intervening in a market already well served by private capital,” he wrote.

Aside from Robert Moses, Kheel didn’t get along with New York Mayor Edward Koch, who ended the lawyer’s 33-year run as the city’s chief arbiter of labor disputes in 1982.

Kheel embodied the rare combination of environmentalist and real estate developer. He co-developed the Punta Cana Resort and Club in the Dominican Republic in 1971, helping create a 1,500- acre ecological reserve. In 1999 he worked with Cornell, his alma mater, to establish the Punta Cana Center of Sustainability and Biodiversity. It conducts research, offers educational programs on environmental issues and is affiliated with more than 10 universities.

“I want development and I want to protect the environment,” Kheel said. “I want them both.”

Labor Peacemaker

Theodore Woodrow Kheel, who was known as Ted, was born on May 9, 1914, in Brooklyn and raised in Manhattan. Awarded a scholarship to Cornell, he studied under an accelerated program that let him earn his bachelor’s and law degrees in six years.

While an undergraduate, he met his future wife, Ann Sunstein. They married the day after he took his bar exam in 1937, and remained together until her death in 2003. They had five daughters, a son, 11 grandchildren and six great- grandchildren.

Kheel initially went into private law practice, and then took a position with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington. During World War II he worked at the National War Labor Board. Hired as principal mediation officer, he had risen to executive director by 1944, overseeing 2,500 staff members handling 150 disputes a week.

After the war, Kheel returned to New York and was recruited by O’Dwyer to serve in the city’s new Labor Relations Division. The mayor allowed Kheel to continue his private law practice.

Conflict Resolution

In 1949, Kheel was appointed to a part-time position as the impartial chairman of a section of the city’s public transit agency. The committee rendered 30,000 labor decisions through 1982. He also became a partner in the law firm Battle, Fowler, Jaffin and Kheel.

Kheel, who was white, became involved in issues facing African-Americans. He was president of the New York Urban League in 1955 and headed its national organization for four years. He also served as a peacemaker in a racially charged Brooklyn teachers’ union dispute in 1968.

Kheel was a driving force in forming several groups whose aim is solving disputes, including the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. The Earth Pledge Foundation came about after he attended the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

In 1994, in conjunction with Price, Waterhouse, Kheel formed the Foundation for Prevention and Early Resolution of Conflicts Inc., or PERC. Two years later, Cornell announced the formation of the Cornell/PERC Institute at the university’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. The school houses the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.

‘The Gates’

Kheel published “The Keys to Conflict Resolution” in 1999 and represented the artists Christo and Jean-Claude in their legal battle with the city to erect “The Gates” installation in Central Park in 2005.

From that collaboration, he donated $1 million to found a non-profit organization called Nurture New York’s Nature. Under the symbol of an orange gate, the foundation funds environmental projects, such as studying the possibility of a free mass transit system.

“In my dream, all who use mass transit, whether it be the commuter rails, the subways or the buses, would be able to do so for free,” Kheel said in February 2007, 50 years after he first raised the issue. “If this is a dream, it is not one beyond reach.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Schoifet in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at

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