Over the course of 30 years he was my boss, my mentor, my father figure, my partner, my father-in-law, my enemy, my competition and the grandfather of my children. Aside from a few years during which he didn’t speak to me, he was also my friend.
He was the best labor negotiator I ever saw. That’s because he was the best problem solver – the real measure of a negotiator. As I sat by his side during those early years, I was constantly astounded by his ability to resolve, to everyone’s satisfaction, issues which seemed unresolvable.
In the late ’70s he was approached by the faculty of a local vocational college who had been notified that the school was going out of business and that they were all to be terminated. After some months of negotiations, Sipser persuaded the school administration to turn over the entire school, lock, stock and barrel, to the faculty, together with their endowment and one million dollars as “start up money.” The school continues today as a thriving enterprise.
Symphony players should be reminded that the Symphony Strike Fund was created in 1969 after negotiations with Sipser about ICSOM becoming an official conference of the AFM.
Those who worked with him know that, while he had very little patience with negotiating working conditions (I can still see him, eyes closed, nodding off at the table and then, miraculously, awakening to answer a question), his passion was for pensions. And although he was neither an actuary nor an accountant, he became the most knowledgeable pension negotiator of any labor lawyer in the country.
Perhaps his single most impressive victory was in negotiating orchestra contracts throughout the nation, which included, in a single negotiation, the elimination of employee contributions to the Pension Plan, a substantial increase in benefits, and getting the management to return to the players all of the contributions they had made in the past! In the aggregate, the contributions returned to the musicians totaled millions of dollars. While this was happening, the following conversation took place on a plane:
Leibowitz: You know, Sipser, no orchestra ever asked you to get their contributions returned. It was all your idea. If you had asked them if they would be willing to give you 10 percent of any amount returned, wouldn’t they have joyously agreed? We would be rich!
Sipser: What are you having for dinner?
He never knew how to make money. Asking union clients for appropriate fees was taking money “from the members,” and he just couldn’t get himself to do it. So, we all starved. But on the basis of value to the firm and to his clients, he was the most underpaid.
His illustration of the definition of “power” in negotiations is a classic. For those of you who never heard it, it’s known as “who’s got the pictures?”
Sipser’s father had a fruit and tomato stand on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn when Sipser was a lad, at which he and his siblings worked after school and on weekends. In the late 1940s, when he was just starting his legal career and earning about $50 per week – in a good week – a man walked into his office with a set of photographs of Sipser at the tomato stand, selling tomatos on the street. When asked how much he wanted for the pictures, the man said $50. Sipser was astounded. “$50? That’s a week’s income for me.” The man looked at him with a smile and said “Mr. Sipser, you’re lucky I only asked for $50. You’d pay me $250 if I asked for it.”
Often during a negotiation he would turn to me and ask, “So, who’s got the pictures?” It’s still the best demonstration of negotiating power that I know.
He was virtually impossible to live with. Yet, leaving his firm in 1985 was the most difficult decision I ever had to make. Peggy was pregnant with Max, our first child, and I just knew that I couldn’t continue to be his partner and have him be Max’s grandfather. I chose “Papa” over partner. I made the right choice. He was an even better grandfather than he was a negotiator.
His inability to remember names was often hilarious. For years after I was married to his daughter he would say good night at the end of the day, and remind me to send his love to “uh…uh…your wife!”
He was allergic to injustice. But unlike an allergy to something that you then avoid, he spent his life attacking it – whether it was at the bargaining table, in the courts, or in politics.
He was an infallible barometer of political election results. Whichever candidate he supported was doomed to defeat. When Max was running for president of his elementary school, he asked Sipser to support his opponent. Sipser refused and Max lost.
No one was lukewarm about Sipser. You either loved him or hated him. I loved him. I miss him but I know that, wherever he is, he’s got the pictures.
Local 802 legal counsel Leonard Leibowitz is the son-in-law of labor lawyer Phil Sipser, who died on March 31.