Although lawyer Theodore W. Kheel has immersed himself in labor disputes for 40 years, he says he's never encountered employer attitudes quite like those at the United Nations, where some 200 staff members have just had a three-week strike.

"The U.N.'s managers are paternalistic, even authoritarian, in their rigid insistence that they know what's best for the employes and that they have the last word," says Kheel, who's arbitrated about 15,000 labor grievances and mediated perhaps 1,000 disputes.

In their offices in the U.N. slab high above the East River, he says, U.N. adminstrators function as a modern-day court of King Henry VIII.

Kheel says it pains him to say such things, because he says he believes the United Nations to be indispensable to world peace. But he says he's afflicted by doubt that the leaders who handle labor relations with about 5,000 employes "abominally," and who at times are "paranoid" about them, are capable of fulfilling the United Nations' peacekeeping and other missions.

The United Nations is "supposed to be the model for the rest of the world of an organization to settle disputes," Kheel said in an interview. 'But it can't even settle problems with its own employes."

Kheel doesn't speak as a neutral party: he represents the United Nations' staff union, and is on a $5,000 retainer, although, because of the principles at stake, he says he would have taken the case free.

At the same time, he insists, he isn't acting as a special pleader for organized labor. He has counseld unions, including the Teamsters. But four times as often, he says, he's advised employers, ranging from Procter & Gamble to the National Football League.

Kheel says his interest isn't in wage rates or perquisites. "You can be getting a million bucks a year and still be humiliated," he said. Instead, his aim is to force U.N. leaders "to represent the rules of human decency... the rules of the game."

Similar views have been expressed for years by employes of the United Nations and of the agencies in its socalled "common system," and by their union oficials.

After working for the United Nations for 10 years in the 1950s, author Shirley Hazzard, for example, concluded that "there is no system whatsoever of reward for merit... demonstrations of capacity almost invariably give way to apathetic conformity, or to resentful babbling about a withheld promotion."

In such an atmosphere, she said, an obsession with retirement and pensions has developed, showing, as one colleague put it, "a touching faith in life after death."

Saying that "something is drastically wrong," L.D. Cross, a former personnel classification officer for the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), recalled the "Mushroom Factory Theory of Management" in the UNIDO staff journal: "You keep them in the dark, feed them on manure, and expect them to produce like crazy."

At the United Nations, Cross wrote last July. "Personnel administrators would gain more credibility if employes felt less like mushrooms and more like people."

Under an old U.N. practice, continued by Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, a secret dossier is kept on each staff member, who is never allowed to see it. It has two sections: one for allegations of a personal sort, such as marital difficulties, and one for "privileged" charges, such as a government might make. Once a charge enters a dossier it apparently never leaves.

Even for a nominally "permanent" employe, a dossier can be chiling, because, if his services are deemed unsatisfactory, the secretary-general can fire him. Still, about 500 staff members attended a working-hours union meeting last month while senior U.N. officials openly recorded their names.

If fired, a staff member doesn't have unemployment compensation to fall back on, and, if on a visa good only while he works at the United Nations, he will have to leave the United States.

Last April, the U.N. staff union newspaper had this advice for any permanent employe threatened with dismissal: "Trust no one in management...."

In sum, union President Lewell L. Flanders told the General Assembly last December, the U.N. treatment of its employes not only conflicts with the standards laid down in its charter, but contradicts "the values of economic, social and political equality" that the member governments claim to promote. The United Nations "cannot be a leader in these matters until the values it embraces are applied to its own staff," Flanders said in a letter.

The controversy between the U.N. hierarchy and Kheel centers on recommendations on staff wage increases made by an independent research body. Waldheim, Kheel charged, broke his word to be bound by the recommendations, as did the heads of the agencies in the U.N. constellation based in Geneva.

Then, after a strike in Geneva, Kheel further charged, Waldheim and top aides made an April 1976 agreement to honor a trimmed version of the recommendations, only to breach it, too.

Now Kheel compares Waldheim unfavorably with Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamster chief. "Every employer said that Hoffa may be a bum, a thief, but that if he gives you his word, he honors it," Kheel said.

The charge of word-breaking outraged George F. Davidson, the U.N. under secretary for administration and management, "That is an absolute misstatement of the truth," he told a reporter.

Besides, Kheel "doesn't know anything about the U.N. system," Davidson said. "He is operating as if the U.N. was a U.S. corporation subject to U.S. law. The U.N. is not a U.S. corporation."

For months, the United Nations and Kheel fought their battle, one so arcane as almost to defy narration, in two main forums, the U.S. Administrative Tribunal and, in Geneva, the International Labor Organization Tribunal.

Although interpretations of what has happened differ, Kheel appears to have won substantial victories:

The principle of collective bargaining, even if called joint consultations, has been established for six agencies in Geneva and maybe for U.N. employes there and in New York.

The right of U.N. system employes to strike, or, in U.N. language, to withhold their services if an impasses is reached in consultations, appears to be nailed down.

"Now," said Kheel, "the most important issue is, how do we relate to each other in the future?"

Even though U.N. leaders view Kheel as "a very real threat... a real provocation," according to union President Flanders, he had nothing to do with the underlying problems.

Similarly, the decision by U.N. officials to adopt electronic word-process ing and announce it to translators and typists as a fait accompli was only the trigger for the strike, which ended last Monday with an agreement by Waldheim to appoint an independent expert to investigate the employes' complaints.

The Kheel confrontation and the strike both grew out of a chronic and worsening malaise rooted in the division of the staff into two main categories, general service and professional, and in what Flanders, in a statement to Waldheim last October, called the "rapid decline in the independence of the international civil service due to political pressures and political influence in the making of personnel and administrative decisions."

The general staff, which accounts for about two-thirds of the employes at U.N. headquarters, is a rough counterpart of the U.S. Civil Service. Many general staffers are highly educated and are, or once were, highly motivated.

Their superiors, on the organization chart, are members of the professional staff, which is a kind of spolis system: a mixed bag of the competent and dedicated, the politically influential, the time-servers, and the castoffs that various governments, for various reasons, want out of the country. More than one of four "seem never to have attended" a college or university, a 1971 U.S. survey noted.

The sometimes mind-boggling pay and perquisites that get occasional notice go primarily to the professional staff, not the general staff. The professional employes of U.N. organizations draw salaries 38 to 57 percent higher than those of U.S. civil servants, while taking, on a one-year basis in New York, 14 to 19 times as much sick leave, the Senate Government Operations Committee said in a 1977 report.

In the statement to Waldheim, Flanders protested "the almost complete demoralization of our general service staff in matters related to equality of treatment, salaries, promotions, career development and internal transfers."

The two categories "have hardened into a kind of "caste system' from which escape is practically impossible if you have been consigned to one of the lower orders," Flanders said.

Replying, Waldheim wrote that he will "continue to insist that avenues for advancement must remain open... so as to ensure and enhance the career possibilities for all."

The U.N. charter seems to erect impassable barriers to the political pressure Flanders cited by forbidding the seeking or receiving of instructions "from any government," and by declaring the need for "the highest... efficiency, competence and integrity" to be "the paramount consideration" in hiring staff.

Actually, U.N. administrators consistently have let member countries fill key posts, by giving less weight to the "paramount" consideration than to charter language saying that "due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting... on as wide a geographical basis as possible." This has worked to the particular disadvantage of highly educated women on the general Service stoff.