Theodore Kheel, 1914–2010

The labor lawyer with a knack for compromise

Theodore Kheel was dubbed the “master locksmith of deadlock bargaining” for his ability to reach agreements with powerful unions nationwide. In New York City, where he was the pre-eminent labor lawyer of his era, Kheel helped settle teacher, transit, and newspaper strikes in the 1960s and ’70s. The art of the deal, he said, was to discover the answer to “What will you settle for?”—without ever asking the question.

“Named after Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson,” Theodore Wilson Kheel was born in Brooklyn, said The New York Times. He earned bachelor’s and law degrees from Cornell University, where he met Ann Sunstein, his wife of 66 years and mother of their five daughters. In 1938, Kheel became a lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C., and later joined the War Labor Board, which aimed to keep labor peace during World War II. But when he moved back to New York after the war, his career took off.

In 1948, he went into private practice as a labor mediator while also serving as part-time arbitrator at the New York City Transit Authority, a post he held for 33 years, deciding more than 30,000 disputes. One union leader said of Kheel: “Whether we won or lost, we knew we had a fair shake.” Mayor Robert Wagner turned to Kheel to end the 114-day newspaper strike of 1962–63, and President Lyndon Johnson summoned him in 1964 to prevent a nationwide rail walkout.

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Kheel’s influence waned in the 1970s, though he remained “a visible force in New York life,” said The Washington Post. A gregarious bon vivant “known for natty dressing,” he did business from a table at the Four Seasons. “The best place to negotiate,” he once said, “is where you can get the best food.”

Kheel, who earned millions as an entrepreneur and investor, represented the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their negotiations with New York City over their 2005 public art installation The Gates, in which thousands of orange fabric panels were installed throughout Central Park. Later, Kheel founded the nonprofit Nurture New York’s Nature, to fund environmental projects and champion free mass transit, a cause Kheel had supported for half a century.

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