Phil Sipser passed away on the morning of March 31, after suffering for a lengthy period of time from respiratory and heart ailments. He had served as legal counsel to the Local 802 rank-and-file Theatre Committee for the 1975 negotiation, and then as general counsel to the local in the mid-1980s. During that later period, beginning in fact some years before, he was legal counsel to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Extra and Associate Musicians, Music Staff and Librarians.
Following the long Regular Orchestra strike at the Met in 1980 – at which those musicians won a reduction of the work week to four performances – he initiated a series of early negotiations designed to simultaneously repair the relationship between management and the orchestra that had been strained by the strike and move the orchestra forward, especially on the basic issues of wages and pension. His work on pension issues, his advocacy of this provision as a primary element in a collective bargaining agreement, and his knowledge of the subject fundamentally changed the face of symphonic, opera and ballet negotiations.
He repeated the same virtuoso turn in the late 1990s at the New York Philharmonic whivh had been wracked by an extremely bitter and contentious negotiation in 1995. Phil convinced both parties that it was in everyone’s best interests to complete the 1998 negotiations early. In doing so, the orchestra achieved a groundbreaking six-year agreement that brought base wages to the $2,000 per week level. He was one of those who helped found ICSOM more than 30 years ago, and was honored by that organization for his service in 1998.
Phil – or Izzy, as he is known to his older friends – didn’t start out in the music field. He grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City, where his family had a fruit and vegetable business. After entering the legal profession, he began a lifelong advocacy of the causes of the progressive political left. He ran for the New York State Assembly and Senate on the American Labor Party line in 1944, ’47 and ’48, and managed Paul O’Dwyer’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1968. (He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I lost three times before I was 30,” describing it as “a record very few people, if any, have ever achieved in the American political scene.”) Just two years ago, he and I tried to stimulate local interest in the presidential candidacy of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.
He supported a great many difficult or even lost causes and, in electoral politics, rarely backed a winner. (Several years ago, when his grandson Max ran for president of his elementary school student council, he asked his grandfather to support his opponent.) Despite this lack of obvious success, he never faltered in his belief in the causes of working women and men and in the trade union movement.
Before representing orchestra musicians he represented brewery workers in their brutal battles with beer companies. Until the day he died, he harbored an intense anger toward the Coors Brewery Company for the way in which it had treated those workers and their union.
Phil’s work in the orchestral field set patterns that are still being followed today. He knew that base wages and retirement benefits are the cornerstone upon which to build a contract, and he helped move musicians in that field from their low pay/low respect status to the highly regarded position they hold today. Every orchestral musician has been affected directly or indirectly by his work, and owes him a vote of thanks.
I got to know him fairly well and considered him a friend. He was highly intelligent, creative, tough, self-assured, opinionated, outspoken, difficult, sometimes vulgar and always practical. I liked him a lot and will miss him. We’ll all miss him.