Theodore W. Kheel, labor mediator, dies at 96

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 7:41 PM

Theodore W. Kheel, who as New York's foremost labor mediator during the 1960s and '70s served as peacemaker in thousands of disputes involving bus drivers, undertakers, longshoremen, football players and even Radio City Music Hall's famed Rockettes, died Nov. 12 in New York. He was 96 and had been hospitalized for an infection.

Mr. Kheel was a lawyer who presided over negotiations that ended some of the most intractable labor disputes of his time, including the 114-day strike that crippled New York's newspapers from late 1962 to early 1963.

He played an important role in the ongoing struggle over automation in the newspaper industry, negotiating a landmark contract in 1974 that preserved pressmen's jobs while allowing publishers to introduce computerized typesetting.

Mr. Kheel also kept New York's buses and trains running for more than three decades as the city's impartial arbitrator for transit unions and their employers. In that role, he was the city's primary weapon against strikes that threatened to disrupt the lives and commutes of countless New Yorkers.

The New York Times in 1988 described Mr. Kheel as "perhaps the most influential, industrial peacemaker in New York City in the last half-century." Business Week called him a "master locksmith of deadlock bargaining."

A gregarious one-time restaurateur known for natty dressing, Mr. Kheel often conducted business at white table-cloth establishments such as the Four Seasons or the "21" Club.

"The best place to negotiate," Mr. Kheel once said, "is where you can get the best food."

He was accustomed to being interrupted by labor emergencies. In 1965, he cancelled a vacation to the Riviera to help avert a teachers' strike. Immediately afterward, he flew to Denmark for a business meeting - only to receive a 3 a.m. phone call from Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who asked for help dealing with another newspaper strike.

Mr. Kheel's reach and reputation extended beyond New York. He advised President John F. Kennedy on national labor issues. Not long after Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson tapped Mr. Kheel to head off a threatened national railroad strike.

Johnson's White House provided trunks full of reports and documents related to the negotiations; Mr. Kheel ignored them. "Any attempt to learn about the dispute by plowing through that data would have been fatal," he said. "The only real way to get the feel of the problem is to have the parties tell you themselves."

Mr. Kheel said he was able to find agreement among warring parties by discarding what he called "non-solutions" - the problems and issues that create discord but are not essential to a settlement.

Mr. Kheel compared the process to sculpting an elephant. "You chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant, and what's left is an elephant," he told the New York Times in 1965. "When you're trying to get a labor contract, you do the same thing. You chip away everything that doesn't belong in the agreement, and what's left is the agreement."

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