Sunday, December 16, 2012

Anniversary of the Wilmar 8 Bank Strike

December 16, 1977 - Eight women in Willmar, Minnesota, initiated the first bank strike in U.S. history. They earned international attention as The Willmar 8. Although they didn't win their strike, they became enduring symbols in the struggle for women's rights and for social and economic justice.

The wind chill was 70 degrees below zero in December 1977 when the nation’s first bank strike began in Willmar, Minnesota. On the morning of Dec.16, the eight members of Willmar Bank Employees’ Association Local 1 marched out on the sidewalk in front of Citizens’ National, armed with snowmobile suits against the cold and signs against the blatant sexism that reigned at the bank.
 When they huddled together in the cold on that first December day, they hoped a contract would bring them back inside within a couple of weeks. When they stepped away from the picket line in 1979, they still had no contract, but they had stirred up the emotions of the nation. Their fight was not about the Citizens’ National Bank in Willmar anymore; it was about the rights of women in America and beyond.

By conventional measures, their nearly two-year-old strike was a failure. But to the Willmar 8, as they came to be known, as well as to many others, their success went beyond anything they had imagined.

From a sidewalk in their town of 14,000 people in western, the Willmar 8 marched into the limelight. They were interviewed by countless newspapers and featured on TV shows, including “Today” and “Donahue.” Actress Lee Grant showed up with a camera crew to make a documentary about their struggle. Within a few months, the Willmar 8 had become so famous that when the post office received a letter addressed to “The Women, Minnesota,” workers knew to deliver it to the Willmar labor hall, where a small room served as strike headquarters.

Town reacts in different ways

When the strike was at its peak, few people in Willmar expressed whole-hearted support. As Grant’s documentary demonstrates, the fear of dividing the small community suffocated debate. The local newspaper generally gave the strike only perfunctory coverage. At best, passersby honked and waved.

“People kind of avoided that street,” said Glennis Ter Wisscha, who was only 19 when the strike began. “The action was so unusual that nobody could believe it was happening.”

The strike created stress within marriages, between families and among friends. Three female co-workers at the bank refused to join them on the picket line. Most clergy in town seemed to side with the status quo, Ter Wisscha said, and support from other labor unions was sporadic.

The lawyer who took the women’s case, John Mack, lost his position as county chairman of the Republican Party, but stayed with the Willmar 8 until the end.

“They were right,” he said of the women. “And I didn’t conceive of it then – and I still don’t conceive of it now – as being a partisan issue.”

The bank’s directors used leverage wherever they could, including putting the financial squeeze on a nearby service station that allowed the striking women to use its restroom. Other employers in town refused to hire the strikers.

But some town residents did demonstrate support in quieter ways. The controversy took a heavy toll on the bank’s finances: While other banks in the area prospered, Citizens National went from an annual growth rate of 12 percent to a decline of 6 percent.

The striking women watched from the picket line how customers avoided the bank. “I think they were ashamed that they let us stand out there for two years,” said Doris Boshart.

Support also came from a group the women did not know: the National Organization for Women. At first, the strikers had mixed emotions about the women who joined them on the picket line. The strikers grew up in Willmar and the smaller towns around it, and were eager to tell the press they were married, churchgoing women, not radical feminists.

“That was somebody else,” Ter Wisscha said. “That was somebody else’s fight. They were the bra-burners and the radicals.”

Not until a NOW member told Ter Wisscha that feminism did not mean preventing women from staying home, but instead meant giving them choices, did she realize she belonged in that camp.

“It was like a light bulb came on in my head,” she said. “It was like, wow, I get it! I understand!”
Doris Boshart
Teren Novotny

‘We’re not all equal’ 

Ter Wisscha, Boshart, Sandi Treml, Shirley Solyntjes, Teren Novotny, Sylvia Erickson, Jane Harguth, and Irene Wallin had been hired at salaries of about $400 per month. The starting salary for men averaged $700 per month, the same amount Boshart made after 10 years at the bank.
They were expected to work overtime without extra pay, and they were held in place at the bottom of the hierarchy with a firm grip. The executive rank was an exclusive men’s club, and the only woman who managed to fight her way to a bank officer position made $4,000 less per year than the male employees she supervised.

“We talked about it amongst ourselves all the time,” Boshart said. “And it just kept growing and growing and we kept getting angrier and angrier.”

In April 1977, when a young man was hired right out of college and the women were told to train him to become their boss, the kettle boiled over. They marched into Bank President Leo Pirsch’s office to demand change.

Pirsch then uttered the phrase that made headlines throughout the country, and still stands out in the minds of everyone who remembers the strike. “We’re not all equal you know,” Pirsch told them.

Pirsch went on to tell them their salaries were more than adequate -- for women -- and that it was only fair that men were better paid. After all, he said, they had to pay to take women on dates.

The women refused to take the insults in silence. They filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. In May 1977, they formed Minnesota’s first bank union.

In June 1977, the EEOC ruled there was “reasonable cause to believe” there had been gender discrimination at the bank, and the board of directors finally agreed to negotiate.

Ter Wisscha calls the ensuing negotiations “an absolute effort in futility. The bank president would sit reading the newspaper at the bargaining table . . . They had no intention of going anywhere.”


St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Mary Ann Grossmann covered the strike from beginning to end, and saw the bond that developed among the women. “I think it became a sisterhood,” she said. “They weren’t going to let each other down.”

Grossmann was among the crowd of journalists who pulled out road maps and made their way to Willmar on the first day of the strike. She was there because of an anonymous phone call from a woman in the Twin Cities. “I don’t think they ever sent out a press release,” she said. “I don’t think they knew how to. They never asked for publicity.”

But publicity is exactly what they got. Before lunchtime, the bank was flooded with Twin Cities journalists. Grossmann understood better than the striking women where all the attention came from. She had just returned to Minnesota after covering a women’s conference in Houston where 2,000 women, including four First Ladies, marched together for women’s rights.

Feminism had caught the eye of American media and television stations were craving a chance to turn their cameras away from the metropolitan movements to a small rural town.

“They were exactly at the right time and place to get coverage,” Grossmann said.

Camera crews and newspaper staff loved what they saw in Willmar. “It was very unusual to have the wives and daughters of farmers, basically blue-collar people, going on strike against the banking system,” Grossmann said.

The media flurry subsided and the days on the picket line started to drag on. “The colder it got, the more depressing it got,” Ter Wisscha said. “And then all of a sudden we started getting letters.”

‘You can’t stop . . .’ 

The letters came from all over the country and the world. Soon the walls of their crammed little room in the labor hall was papered with them. Many letters came with money. From New Zealand, an anonymous woman sent $5 every month to their strike fund. Other letters came with pleas. “You can’t stop, you understand you can’t stop. Please understand you’re doing this for all of us,” Ter Wisscha remembers reading. “It wasn’t very long before it wasn’t our strike anymore,” she said.

On an icy February day, support arrived en masse from the Twin Cities. The United Automobile Workers, led by the late union representative Bob Killeen, gathered more than 250 people in Willmar for a support rally. The women were stunned.

“They were friends, they were supporters, and they did this without being asked,” Ter Wisscha said. “It would have never occurred to us . . . That was exciting.”

It was not the last visit by UAW supporters, she said, some of whom would ride in on their Harley-Davidson motorcycles – and always receive a police escort out of town.

As the Willmar 8’s fame grew, the donations trickled into their strike fund in larger streams, but not enough to keep them going forever. In summer 1978, the women dropped their discrimination lawsuit against the bank in exchange for a tiny financial settlement brokered by the EEOC. By September, the strike fund was empty, and the strikers made the difficult decision to drop their demands and offer to return to work without a contract.

This was not enough to end the conflict. The bank had filled their jobs and told the women they could return only as openings became available.

Boshart was the only one immediately called back to work. She returned, but was demoted from head bookkeeper to teller and had to face constant harassment from the other employees. She stuck it out, though, and today still works part-time at Heritage Bank, the successor to Citizen’s.

New owners, NLRB ruling foreshadow the end 

Things briefly looked brighter in March 1979. Leo Pirsch resigned, and the bank was sold. A couple of months later, it was sold again. Still, the women were told they had to wait for positions to become vacant before they could return to work.

That summer, after months of delays and appeals, the NLRB issued its final ruling on the women’s labor complaint. Yes, the bank had committed unfair labor practices, the agency ruled, but those had not caused the strike. Instead, the NLRB ruled, the strike was “economic.”

The decision was a huge loss for the women; it meant, among other things, no back pay and no guarantee that they would get their jobs back. “It was pretty devastating,” Novotny said.

Despite the ruling, the women stayed on the picket line into the fall, even as hopes of an agreement dwindled. As one after another found new jobs, the strike died out.

During the summer and fall of 1980, the new owners allowed the women to return to work. Four of them did, though only Boshart stayed more than a few months. Today, she still works part-time at Heritage Bank, the most-recent successor to Citizens National.

Heritage has relocated across the street; the old Citizens National building now is owned by US Bank.

Making history

From friends and family in the banking industry, the Willmar 8 learned their struggle had not been in vain. Novotny remembers her mother-in-law gratefully noticing how women were treated with increased respect at the bank where she worked.

The Willmar 8 also made their way into history books and classrooms, and remain there today. Boshart receives a yearly batch of letters from college students, thanking her for her role in the struggle for women’s rights. “I want to thank you for standing up for what is right . . . be assured your strike was not in vain . . . Your stand had a ripple impact on equality and rights of women,” a women’s studies student wrote last year.

Ter Wisscha also gets letters and phone calls from students learning about the strike. “That’s what fuels my belief that we’re not done winning yet,” she said. “People are still asking the questions. People still want to try to understand.”

At Willmar Junior High School, history teacher Suzanne Nelson teaches her students about the Willmar 8 in the local history course to show them how “a small group of people can make a lot of difference.”

Every year, she says, several students choose to write papers about the strike. “They’re interested to find out that something so important happened in their hometown,” she said. “It really gets them excited.”

At Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Renee Vaughan teaches her students how the Willmar 8 transformed the relationship between women and unions. “It was the first labor strike that really brought together issues of the labor movement and the women’s movement,” she said. “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.”

Ter Wisscha is asked to talk at universities, and although she has seen the Willmar 8 documentary more than 100 times, she still arrives in time to watch it with students. “There’s something that pulls me to it,” she said. “Only because every time I see it I still cry . . . and I realize that as the tears are coming to my eyes at certain points, I look around and I see I’m not alone. I feel the welling up of support again . . . It reenergizes and gives me some wonderful reminders and I can’t believe that I was part of that.”

Doris Boshart, Teren Novotny, Sylvia Erickson, Jane Harguth, Sandi Treml and Irene Wallin continue to live in or near Willmar. Glennis Ter Wisscha moved to St. Paul shortly after the strike, where she still lives. Shirley Solyntjes lives in Iowa.

When this article was written in 2002, Åsa Wilson was a student at Macalester College in St. Paul and an intern for the Union Advocate newspaper and Workday Minnesota. A version of this story appeared in the Dec. 19, 2002, issue of the Advocate. 

Related article:
Women still have a long way to go in the banking industry

> The article above is reprinted from the WorkdayMinnesota website.

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