Ted Kheel was one of those fixtures on the New York City horizon. Even though his name hasn’t been much in the news in recent years, his absence, as of his death Friday at 96, opens the kind of hole that’s created when a landmark falls to the wreckers: You don’t miss it until it’s gone. For decades, news that Kheel was at work had a reassuring effect on citizens no matter where their loyalties lay on the labor-management divide. It probably didn’t hurt that his very name evoked a vessel headed back on course. Since the 1950s, he was New York’s greatest mediator and you knew that if the call to Kheel had gone out, the fight — whatever it was about — was almost over. The subways would roll. The newspapers would publish. Teachers would head to the classroom. He did it, as he said in the elegant quote that caps Steven Greenhouse’s obit in the Times today, with an artisan’s diligent approach: “It’s like sculpting an elephant. You chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”
If he didn’t always get it right, he still had a better batting average than anyone else in the game. When the city’s last great newspaper strike erupted 20 years ago last month at the Daily News, Kheel was quick to call it, saying the strike meant the paper’s death. That was a pretty sober comment to wake up to if you were getting out of bed for picket duty. But to his credit, dead didn’t mean resuscitation was impossible. He proceeded to camp out at the union offices of the Allied Printing Trades Council where he helped map an end to hostilities. Since the Tribune Corporation — crazed then, as now — had hired permanent replacements for its own workers, Kheel helped reel in a replacement owner for Tribune. Peace again.
The last notes I can find for one of his ever-ready offers of expert opinion are from late 1999 when the transit union was rallying its troops with threat of strike. It’s illegal for public employees to walk off the job under the state’s Taylor Law, a statute that still chafes at union leaders and which they’ll be regretting all over again pretty soon.
The notes show Kheel patiently explaining how the law evolved out of the 11-day 1966 transit strike, the one that greeted John Lindsay on New Year’s morning when he was first sworn in as mayor. Kheel was mediator of that strike as well, settling it with a wage increase. This sparked a conservative push for a permanent whip to keep public unions in line. Despite the law, Kheel said he well understood the union’s motivation for vowing to violate it. “If they say, ‘We’ll obey the law.’ they don’t get as much attention. There’s no question about it,” he said. Unions, he added, don’t have a whole lot of other tools at their disposal when it comes to showdowns, which is one reason the rhetoric often runs high.
Another reason to admire him was that he also understood that being a neutral mediator didn’t mean he had to be neutral in life. He helped raise funds for Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause, hosting the minister at his gracious home in Riverdale in the early 60s when money from the north was a lifeline to the civil rights battles being waged down south.
He also took his opportunities where he found them. Back in 1979, New York Magazine, then in the hands of the always frothing anti-unionist, Rupert Murdoch, ran a lengthy cover story aimed at undermining labor’s peace negotiator by putting Kheel and his various moneymaking ventures into as many scandals as it could list. The story was mostly on the money, but it’s chief lament was Kheel’s kid-gloves treatment by the Times, and that he’d only survived by “ingratiating himself with the power structure of this city” — as if that wasn’t what the entire magazine was supposed to be training its readers to do.
One of Kheel’s successful ventures was a union-supported credit card premised on the notion that union members might want to use a card that funneled a piece of the change back into organizations that benefitted them. It’s a good idea, though for years, every time I’ve pulled the card out of my wallet I’ve wondered how many pennies from the purchase will wind up in Ted Kheel’s pocket, or maybe plowed into that luxury Dominican resort he ran, the one that has Charlie Rangel in so much trouble now. But given a choice between supporting Bank of America or the Union Bank of Ted Kheel, it’s no debate. Go with the man who kept the papers publishing and their employees decently paid.