Theodore Kheel dies at 96; labor mediator helped resolve thousands of disputes

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 Friday in New York after being hospitalized for an infection, family spokesman Edward Nebb confirmed.

Kheel also mediated an end to a national railroad strike in 1964 and helped avert another one in 1967. He served as advisor to every New York mayor from William O'Dwyer in the 1940s to Abraham Beame in the '70s, as well as to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Ford.

An expert negotiator and mediator, Kheel would ask both sides to tell him, in front of their opponents, exactly what they wanted so he could identify the key issues.

"The essence of mediation is getting information," Kheel said in a 1970 profile in the New Yorker. "The dirtiest question you can ask in bargaining is, 'What will you settle for?' If you ask that question, you ought to resign, but that's the question you must have an answer to. You get it by asking every question except that. What's left over is the answer."

Kheel spent more than 50 years advocating the use of mass transit instead of automobiles. In 1957, 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.

Kheel also 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 University, his alma mater, to establish the Punta Cana Center of Sustainability and Biodiversity. Affiliated with more than 10 universities, it conducts research and offers educational programs on environmental issues.

He also had a long-standing interest in social issues. He was president of the National Urban League for four years and was part of the Gandhi Foundation, which helped support the efforts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Theodore Woodrow Kheel, known as Ted, was born on May 9, 1914, in Brooklyn and raised in Manhattan. He earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell in 1935 and his law degree two years later.

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.

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.

Survivors include six children, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Kheel's wife of 66 years, Ann, died in 2003.