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Frank Sinatra vs. Australia’s Trade Unions

Touring Australia in 1974, Frank Sinatra launched into a sexist tirade against female journalists. Trade unions hit back — by shutting down Sinatra’s tour.

Frank Sinatra arrives in London following a troubled tour in Australia. (Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In 1974, Frank Sinatra came out of a short retirement to tour Australia for the first time in over fifteen years. The legendary crooner was not prepared, however, for the changed political landscape Down Under.

Increasing numbers of women were entering higher education and professional and public life. The women’s liberation movement was challenging sexist social attitudes and demanding access to abortion and childcare as well as equal rights in education and employment.

It was part of a broader upheaval. The half decade before Sinatra’s tour also saw a massive surge in industrial militancy, kicked off by the general strike of 1969 and a rebound in union membership, which had been in decline since 1948.

Female unionists wove together these two strands, demanding that the union movement leave behind antiquated notions of breadwinners and housewives and instead fight for equal wages for women.

The World He Knew (Was Over and Over)

By 1974, the fifty-nine-year-old Sinatra had switched political loyalties from the Democrats to the Republicans and thrown his support behind Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. He wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the new wave of political agitation, at home or abroad. More than anything, though, it seems that Sinatra just wanted to be left alone. He told the Australian press that he wouldn’t be doing any interviews while in the country.

Of course, that didn’t stop journalists from pursuing him from the moment his plane landed. Lacking fresh material from interviews, they filled gossip pages with speculation about Sinatra’s alleged mafia connections and the women in his entourage.

When reporters mobbed him at his hotel, Sinatra’s bodyguards retaliated with force. One reporter emerged from the fray with cuts to her face. A bodyguard reportedly wrapped an electric cord around one cameraman’s throat and warned: “Things are going to get physical.”

Later that evening, Sinatra ranted about reporters at a sold-out Melbourne show:

They keep chasing after us. We have to run all day long. They’re parasites who take everything and give nothing. And as for the broads who work for the press, they’re the hookers of the press. I might offer them a buck and a half, I’m not sure.

The next morning, the Australian Journalists Association demanded that Sinatra apologize to female journalists. In a show of solidarity, the Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees’ Association announced that until Sinatra apologized, their employees would refuse to provide lighting, staging, and backing musicians for his tour. The Waiters Union also joined the ban, cutting off Sinatra’s room service.

Frank Sinatra en route to a Melbourne concert during his Australian tour, July 1974. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Sinatra had his lawyer inform unions that he was unwilling to apologize. Further, he demanded an apology from the unions “for fifteen years of abuse I have taken from the world press.” If the apology wasn’t forthcoming, Sinatra threatened to immediately leave the country.

The unions were not impressed. The Transport Workers Union announced that airport workers would refuse to refuel Sinatra’s private jet. The president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Bob Hawke, threw down the gauntlet to the star:

If you don’t apologize, your stay in this country could be indefinite. You won’t be allowed to leave Australia unless you can walk on water.

All or Nothing at All

Sinatra, however, refused to budge. According to a member of his entourage, the superstar had never apologized to anyone in his life and wasn’t about to make an exception.

Sinatra holed up in his luxury hotel suite and plotted his escape. He reportedly considered calling the admiral of a US aircraft carrier docked in Japan — where Sinatra had played before Australia — to ask for a helicopter to pick him up from the roof of the hotel. Sinatra also floated the possibility of asking Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa to organize a ban on his members transporting any goods exported from Australia. Neither plan came to fruition.

As it turned out, the public relations manager of Sinatra’s hotel was friends with Tony Whitlam, son of the Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam. Following a call from the PR manager, Whitlam junior agreed to intervene on Sinatra’s behalf. However, when Gough Whitlam called back, he announced that only Bob Hawke could arrange for the union ban to be lifted.

The fact that it was Hawke who had the power to resolve a dispute centered around sexism was not likely to impress the feminist movement. Hawke’s biographer Blanche d’Alpuget noted that the union leader had aroused the ire of Australian feminists himself in 1971:

Appearing on television with Zelda D’Aprano, a leader of the cause, he had felt her shoulder to find out, as he explained, if she were wearing a bra. . . . The feminist magazine MeJane named him Male Chauvinist of the Month, and feminists never forgave him.

Perhaps seeing an opportunity to build his feminist credentials, Hawke took three days to respond to Sinatra’s invitation to visit his hotel and broker a peace deal so the tour could continue. When Hawke finally did show up, he brought with him fifteen union representatives. The best they could get out of Sinatra was a statement of regret and an admission that he “did not intend any general reflection upon the moral character of working members of the Australian media.”

It wasn’t much of an apology. Hawke and Sinatra nevertheless fronted the media outside the hotel to shake hands and announce that a deal had been made. The unions allowed Sinatra’s tour to proceed.

The Rise and Fall of the Political Strike

The Sinatra siege was typical of a time in which unions regularly brought their muscle to bear on issues that went beyond wages and working conditions.

In 1971, when the white-only South African rugby team toured Australia, Hawke and other ACTU leaders organized a union campaign to refuse them service in protest against apartheid. The ACTU urged all affiliated unions to “take whatever action is necessary as an act of conscience to obstruct the tour” and promoted a consumer boycott of South African goods.

Some state union branches decided not to support the broader ban. As a result, the tour was only hindered, not stopped altogether. Nevertheless, the fightback against the Springboks’ 1971 tour was so successful that the South African cricket team cancelled its proposed 1972 tour.

The green bans imposed on ecologically, socially, or historically destructive construction projects by the New South Wales Builders Laborers Federation were also a high point of political union action. Between 1971 and 1974, unions imposed fifty-four bans on skyscrapers, shopping precincts, and luxury apartments. Most famously, the “green bans” halted the construction of a carpark in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. They also saved a section of Centennial Park that was to be destroyed to make way for a sports stadium.

However, union strength and militancy began to decline in the late 1970s, a trend that has continued until today. When Bob Hawke became prime minister in 1983, he introduced reforms that accelerated the decline of union power, both political and industrial.

Today, sympathy strikes and “political strikes” are illegal, with unions and employees who violate the rules subject to onerous financial penalties. Today, when celebrities or politicians air reactionary, anti-feminist, or anti-working-class views, they face widespread condemnation — but primarily online and through the media. Consumer boycotts can hit an artist’s bottom line. Compared to union bans, however, these tactics are far less powerful.

Similarly repressive anti-union laws also burdened the workers’ movement prior to the 1970s. The unions were only able to cancel Frank Sinatra’s 1974 tour because they had already cancelled those laws with a wave of strikes beginning in 1969. When they did, they showed that workers have the power to build a society that looks out for everyone. They also showed a far more effective way of cancelling aged crooners with mob ties, expensive tastes, and obnoxious opinions.