Theodore “Ted” W. Kheel (1914-2010) was a prominent American attorney who helped resolve thousands of labor disputes, and was an activist devoted to civil rights, the environment, employee health and welfare, and other causes.
During the course of his career, Kheel was pivotal in ending crippling newspaper, subway and teacher strikes in New York City, where he served as a mediator and advisor to mayors for several decades. As his reputation grew, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson also tapped him to assist in resolving labor disputes of national significance, including the 1962 Dockworkers Strike, the 1964 National Railroad Strike, and the 1967 National Non-Operating Crafts Railroad Impasse.
In articles hailing his ability to resolve conflicts, Kheel was described as “the most influential peacemaker in New York City in the last half-century,” the “master locksmith of deadlock bargaining.”
Kheel was also a dedicated civil rights activist. In 1955, he was drafted to serve as President of the New York Urban League and became involved in desegregating the airline industry. He subsequently was appointed President of the National Urban League, a position he held for four years. Befriending Martin Luther King, Jr., he became an officer of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights that helped underwrite King’s activism. He also served as director and secretary/treasurer of the African American Students Foundation (AASF), which brought nearly 800 East Africans to study at colleges and universities in the United States between 1959 and 1963 and assisted them financially during their studies; one of the students aided in the U.S. was Barack Obama, Sr.
Drawing on his work as transportation mediator, Kheel became a champion of mass transit, advocating on its behalf to public officials from the eras of Mayors Robert Wagner and John Lindsay to that of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His views on transit issues often made headlines, impacting public opinion and legislative policy. In his later years, Kheel advocated on behalf of free public transit and traffic pricing to encourage greater use of subways and buses, and lessen traffic gridlock.
Kheel also took an active interest in the area of environmental sustainability. His involvement began when he attended the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, with his longtime friend and client Robert Rauschenberg. Moved by the event, Kheel became a powerful spokeperson for sustainable development in the following years, as well as a generous philanthropist for diverse environmental causes.
In advance of the Earth Summit, Kheel enlisted Rauschenberg to create a painting for the event titled Last Turn, Your Turn. The painting, which shows a rainforest canopy rendered in cool greens and blues, desiccated trees splashed in orange; a baby fussing in a stroller under a small red umbrella; an anguished Atlas holding up a celestial sphere, is an ardent plea that we take responsibility for the future of development.*
In a New York Times interview shortly before his death, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Kheel replied “I would like to be remembered in terms of conflict resolution.” In fact, conflict resolution was for Kheel not just a career but a world view and a philosophy, guiding him in everything from employee and race relations to the field of environmental sustainability. He called it the art of reaching agreement, and viewed it as the key to how people in a free society can live together.
* The description of Last Turn Your Turn is adopted from text in Eric Pooley’s profile of Theodore Kheel, published in Extraordinary Lives, by American Express, ©2008.