By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
The New York Times
Published: November 14, 2010
Mr. Kheel was widely credited with crafting the final settlement, which gave the typographical union a larger raise than some other unions received, along with assurances that its members would not lose their jobs when the publishers embraced automation.
A disgruntled publisher once called him Cecil B. DeKheel.
“I churn the collective bargaining process like butter,” Mr. Kheel once said. “It’s a butter I hope everyone enjoys, but in any case I’m sure it’s a butter everybody can live on.”
Theodore Woodrow Kheel was born in Brooklyn on May 9, 1914, named after Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. His father, Samuel, headed a real estate company, and his mother, Kate Herzenstein, ran the company after his father died.
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Mr. Kheel went to Cornell University, graduating in 1935; he graduated from its law school two years later.
The day after passing the New York bar exam, he married Ann Sunstein, whom he had met in a literature class at Cornell. A journalist and civic leader, she was secretary of the board of the New York Urban League for a quarter-century. She died in 2003.
They had five daughters: Ellen Jacobs of Manhattan; Constance E. Kheel of Buskirk, N.Y.; Dr. Marti Kheel of El Cerrito, Calif.; Jane K. Stanley of Bethesda, Md.; and Katherine Kheel of Baltimore; a son, Robert J., of Manhattan; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
In 1938, Mr. Kheel joined the legal staff of the National Labor Relations Board. He later worked for the War Labor Board, which was charged with maintaining labor peace to promote the war effort.
In 1946, Mayor William O’Dwyer named him deputy director of New York City’s new division of labor relations, and a year later he became the division’s director.
In 1948, he returned to private practice, joining what became Battle, Fowler, Neaman, Stokes & Kheel. In May 1949, he was named impartial arbitrator for the city’s private transit industry, settling disputes between the often-militant Transport Workers Union and seven private bus lines. In 1956, Mayor Wagner named him arbitrator for the citywide transit authority, a position he held for 33 years. During that period he handled an average of 1,000 disputes a year.
Michael J. Quill, the transit workers’ fiery leader, voiced grudging respect for Mr. Kheel, saying, “Whether we won or lost, we knew we had a fair shake.” Over the decades, Mr. Kheel helped mediate more than a dozen transit contracts and helped end the 12-day transit strike of 1966.
In 1974, despite objections from the printers’ union, he helped write a landmark contract that enabled the city’s newspaper publishers to introduce “cold type,” or computerized typesetting. In exchange, the typographical unions’ workers were promised lifetime job guarantees.
He was active as a philanthropist, heading the Gandhi Society for Human Rights in the 1960s, which helped the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raise money for the civil rights movement, and the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, which helped finance Kenneth B. Clark’s research on behalf of civil rights.
In 1978, he again helped settle a newspaper strike, this time an 88-day walkout against The Times, The Daily News and The Post. Mr. Kheel began losing influence in the early 1980s after Mayor Edward I. Koch and other critics said he was partly responsible for the city’s financial woes, through overly generous contracts for transit workers and others.
While in his 80s and 90s, he continued his longtime environmental activities, founding Earth Pledge and the Nurture Nature Foundation. He joined the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and remained a stalwart supporter of collective bargaining.
In explaining how to reach a settlement, Mr. Kheel once gave this advice: “It is like sculpting an elephant. You chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant, and what’s left is an elephant. When you’re trying to get a labor contract, you do the same thing. You chip away everything that doesn’t belong in the agreement, and what’s left is the agreement.”