Noted labor lawyer and negotiator par excellence, Theodore W. Kheel, passed away this week. As the obituaries attest, for the better part of four decades Ted was the key connector between management and labor in New York City and in Washington. The New York Times obit tells a good story about his role in labor disputes involving newspaper, railroads, sanitation and transit workers.
I owe a good deal of my communications career to Ted Kheel and one of his many ventures. In the late 1960’s, Ted and several union leaders were concerned about the changes that “automation” would have on the American workforce. He developed a center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side called Automation House, dedicated as a meeting and conference center to come up with answers to late 20th Century automation and industrial problems.
Automation House had one of the better TV studios in Manhattan at the time. I was working as a free lance writer and was asked to write an article on how broadcast facilities could be utilized for an activity called “Media Training.” I watched the training, wrote the article and as they say, the rest is history.
I learned a good deal about negotiations and client management from Mr. Kheel. Two quotes in the obit summarize his approach to mediation and creating settlements. One came from a New Yorker article: “The essence of mediation is getting information. The dirtiest question you can ask in bargaining is “What will you settle for?” If you ask that question, you ought to resign, but that’s the question you must have an answer to. You get it by asking every question except that. What’s left over is the answer.” That dictum is somewhat like what the defense attorney is instructed: Never ask your client if he/she did it. Ask all the other questions. Because if you get the answer you don’t like, it will be much harder to represent your client.
The other quote was Ted’s metaphor for how to reach a settlement. “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.”
Ted Kheel was one of those figures who worked hard to achieve the honest broker status. He taught others how to be better at their professions.