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Theodore W. Kheel

The Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives is named for America’s most distinguished mediator and one of New York City’s most influential public advocates, and for his wife Ann Sunstein Kheel, a journalist and government information specialist who was influential in civic and charitable affairs in New York.

Theodore (Ted) Woodrow Kheel was a lifelong New Yorker. Born in 1914 in Brooklyn, Kheel grew up in Manhattan. He was awarded a regents scholarship to Cornell, where he attended an accelerated undergraduate law school program permitting him to earn his bachelor’s and law degree in six years. It was as an undergraduate that he met his lifelong companion and partner, Ann Sunstein Kheel. The two were married the day after Kheel took his bar exam in 1937. The Kheels were the parents of six children, and the grandparents of eleven. Their extended family includes twenty-one Cornellians.

In private practice for a brief time after graduation from law school, Kheel subsequently accepted a position as a National Labor Relations Board attorney in Washington. It was in this position that he began to develop a philosophy of mediation that would make him an extraordinary public peacemaker for the next fifty years.

“Defining the issues in dispute, gathering the relevant facts, identifying the ultimate decision makers for each side and finding common ground on which they can meet” were, said Kheel, the essential elements in the mediation process. Kheel would try to bring the parties to think in terms of solutions, not problems. At the outset of mediation, he would ask the opponents, in each other’s presence, to tell him what they wanted so that he could clearly define the matters in conflict.

Kheel would then ask each party to evaluate the cost of the disputed issues to help weigh their relative importance, urging each side to understand the underlying constraints faced by the other party. This proved to be a highly successful formula that Kheel would carry beyond the area of labor conflicts to the wider stage of public dispute resolution.

Kheel’s special talents as a mediator and his obvious political skills soon gave him the opportunity to move to a new war-time agency, the National War Labor Board, where he was initially hired as principal mediation officer. By 1944, he had been appointed executive director of the WLB with a staff of 2,500 who were hearing 150 disputes a week. Kheel’s work at the WLB introduced him to the most important figures in the labor movement and key government officials—contacts he would use effectively in the future.

Following the end of World War II, Kheel returned to New York City and was drafted by Mayor O’Dywer to serve in the city’s new Labor Relations Division, which Kheel came to head within a year. With the agreement of the Mayor, Kheel was able to serve both in this position and maintain a separate, private law practice. This ability to wear several professional hats at the same time was typical of Kheel’s style and was a source of his effectiveness, particularly in crisis situations, as well as a target for criticism by his opponents. Throughout a career that was active until recently, Kheel was able to balance, with amazing success, advocacy of the public weal and the management of a successful law and mediation practice and other business interests.

In 1949, Kheel was appointed to a part-time position as impartial chairman for an important segment of public transit in New York City, a position in which he would render 30,000 decisions through 1982. He also became a partner, in 1949, in the New York law firm of Battle, Fowler, Jaffin and Kheel.

In the important New York and national labor disputes which he would be called to mediate, Kheel’s approach was to protect management rights and at the same time demand fairness to workers in these disputes. His willingness to act as an unpaid neutral in pivotal cases allowed him to freely pursue the best settlement from the point of view of both parties to the dispute while also trying to protect the public interest in the issue.

Kheel’s was frequently the voice of reason in settling a number of extremely difficult labor disputes of the 1960s and 1970s, the East Coast Longshoremen’s Strike of 1962, the New York City Newspaper Strikes of 1962-1963 and the 1974 contract settlement, and the 1964 Railroad Strike and National Non-Operating Crafts Railroad Impasse of 1967, to name just a few. He would ultimately serve as a mediator and advisor for virtually every New York mayor from O’Dwyer to Beame, for the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, and other Presidential Administrations as well.

Kheel’s interests in public issues were not limited to the labor sector. The public policy issues that frequently came to his attention as a mediator and lawyer cried out for solutions, and Kheel was not averse to using his considerable public presence and media contacts to seek redress, especially for what he viewed as past institutional injustices or misguided government actions. Although pressed to do so on a number of occasions, Kheel refused to run for elective office, preferring the role of a labor neutral and public advocate.

Ted Kheel’s greatest and most sustained crusade for the public good relates to his consistent vocal and persuasive battle to limit commuter auto traffic and control highway building in New York City in favor of increased use of public transportation. Initially attacked, first by Port Authority officialdom and, later, by some city, state, and federal politicians of both parties, many of the solutions to these problems originally proposed or most persuasively argued by Kheel became public policy in later years.

Insights into the plight of African-American workers that Kheel gained from his work involved Ted and his wife Ann with the New York Urban League in the 1950s. He served as its president in 1955 and as national president for four years. Kheels mediation skills led to important strides in hiring African Americans in the airline industry. Ann Kheel served on the board of directors of the New York Urban League for thirty-seven years and as its secretary for twenty-five. Kheel’s reputation for sensitivity to minority issues resulted in his becoming involved in efforts to add civilians to the New York City Police Review Board in 1965. Kheel was also recruited as a peacemaker in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers dispute.

Finding the solution to problems such as the impact of automation on the workplace, community disputes, and protecting a sustainable environment in which mankind will flourish, to name but a few, were the focus of Kheel’s interest, enthusiasm, and financial support. He was the prime mover, along with like-minded citizens and specialists, in the creation of organizations to investigate and try to find solutions to the more intractable issues facing society. The Foundation on Employee Heath, Medical Care and Welfare, the Foundation on Automation and Employment, Automation House, the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, and the Earth Pledge Foundation were among the most successful of such efforts. In the same vein, in combination with Price, Waterhouse in 1994, Kheel formed Prevention and Early Resolution of Conflicts, Inc (PERC). Two years later, Kheel and then Dean David Lipsky of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell announced the formation of the Cornell/PERC Institute now housed at ILR to study methods of conflict prevention and resolution.

For further information on Mr. Kheel, a copy of his latest book, The Keys to Conflict Resolution, or information on a few of his many worthy public initiatives, see: