The Willmar 8

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Winning Nomination

On December 16, 1977, with a wind chill of 70 degrees below zero, eight women employees of the Citizens' National Bank in Willmar, Minnesota, donned their snowmobile suits and went out on strike. They were protesting the blatant sexism that reigned at the bank, and more subtly at other banks throughout the state.

The specific event that set them off was the hiring of a young man, inexperienced, to a position earning about $700 a month, significantly higher than the $400 monthly salary most of the women earned after years of service. And, more importantly, the women were not given the opportunity to apply for the position anmd were expected to train the new employee.

The community, in general, lent little support to the women. The strike caused stress within marriages, families, and among friends. They did, however, receive support from the local National Organization for Women group, much attention from the media, and from Hollywood when actress/director Lee Grant called and made a documentary covering the story.

Although in June 1977 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled there was "reasonable cause to believe" there had been gender discrimination at the bank, by the summer of 1979 the National Labor Relations Board issued its final ruling: the bank had committed unfair labor practices, but those practices had not caused the strike. It meant no back pay, and no guarantee of getting their jobs back. One after another, they found new jobs.

But they did make history. The Willmar 8 are now in the history books, and discussed in classrooms throughout the country. They changed the way labor and the women's movement interact.

Becuase of their bravery and tenacity, while under considerable economic and personal duress, I nominate the Willmar 8 to the MN 150. They deserve a page in Minnesota history.
~Sharon Howell, Brooklyn Park, MN



Taking a stand when the stakes are high

Doris Boshart, Sylvia Erickson, Jane Harguth, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Sandi Treml, and Irene Wallin. You may not recognize their individual names, but collectively they stirred up controversy in their Minnesota town and across the country in the late 1970s. Known as the Willmar 8, they came to symbolize the uphill climb many American women faced when seeking pay commensurate with their experience and equal to that of their male peers.

The women had been hired at Citizens' National Bank in Willmar at $400 a month. Starting monthly salaries for men averaged $700. Women were expected to work overtime without pay. The bank's sole female officer earned $4,000 less per year than her male supervisees. The last straw, though, came when the women were directed to train a young man right out of college to become their boss. When they pointed this inequity out to bank president Leo Pirsch, his reply spoke volumes: "We're not all equal, you know." They filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. In June 1997, they formed Minnesota's first bank union, the Willmar Bank Employees' Association Local 1. The EEOC took up their cause, but negotiations with bank management broke down. Finally, on December 16, 1977, the women zipped up their snowmobile suits and stepped out into the seventy-degree-below-zero windchill with their picket signs to begin the nation's first bank strike.

They hoped a new contract could be negotiated within a few weeks. After two years, they still hadn't reached an agreement, but sympathizers nationwide had heard their voices loud and clear. Feminist concerns were making headlines everywhere, and the Willmar 8, a group of plainspoken wives, daughters, and mothers, struck a chord. Representatives from the National Organization for Women joined them on the line, as did members of the United Auto Workers. In 1980, actress Lee Grant filmed a documentary about them. "It was the first labor strike that really brought together issues of the labor movement and the women's movement," says Renee Vaughan, who teaches at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. "Before the Willmar 8, the labor movement didn't see gender discrimination as part of the platform. The eight of them really did create social change."

In September 1978, the EEOC negotiated a settlement and the women dropped the lawsuit and agreed to work without a contract. One by one, as their demands went unmet and the bank refused to rehire them, the women found other jobs. Doris Boshart was the only member of the Willmar 8 called back to work immediately; eventually, three others joined her, but only for a few months. Boshart was the only one who stuck it out, even though she was demoted from head bookkeeper to teller and was harassed by coworkers. The National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling in 1979 that did not support the women's position in regard to discrimination. Ter Wisscha, now living in St. Paul, still gets letters and phone calls from students. "That's what fuels my belief that we're not done winning yet," she says. "People are still asking the questions. People still want to try to understand."

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