The New York Times called Ted Kheel, who died Friday at the age of 96, New York City’s pre-eminent labor peacemaker from the 1950s through the 1980s. And he was. Ted was also a steadfast advocate for civil rights, a fierce champion of mass transit, a stalwart defender of labor, an urbanist, a philanthropist, and a visionary. And, for the better part of a century, a vital element of progressive struggle in New York and beyond.
Ted became famous in the 1950s and 1960s as the mediator who settled newspaper strikes, railroad strikes and other high-stakes disputes. He was a fixture in The Times — his square jaw and determined face signifying probity and civic virtue. But much of his finest work was done out of the spotlight. It was Ted’s heretical but constant agitation to allocate surplus toll revenues from Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority to the financially ailing public transit agencies, that in 1968 led NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to combine the TBTA with the Transit Authority and the commuter railroads into the MTA — and destroy Moses’s power to fund highways and starve transit.
Ted’s transit advocacy rested on what he called “the fundamental principle that car travel and mass transit are interrelated, like two sides of an equation. There should be a balance,” he wrote, “but instead, our system is enormously, unconscionably out of balance,” causing road gridlock on the one hand and inadequate transit service on the other. Ted fought for five decades to correct that imbalance, with stories in New York magazine like “How To Stop Cars from Devouring the City” [PDF]; with a self-financed lawsuit [PDF] to overturn bond covenants through which the Port Authority enjoined itself from expanding mass transit, that Ted pursued all the way to the Supreme Court (losing on a tie vote); and, in his final years, with an even more audacious venture that would draw me into his orbit and point the way to a new transit revolution with the potential to surpass that of 1968.