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In 1977, boss tells Willmar 8 ‘We’re not all equal, you know’; strike ensues

willmar 8
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
For nearly two years the Willmar 8 picketed in front of downtown Willmar’s Citizens National Bank.

Things didn’t work out so well for the Willmar 8. For nearly two years they picketed in front of downtown Willmar’s Citizens National Bank. They never got their pay increases; the NCLB said it was an “economic” strike, so they never got strike-related compensation; and after the strike, seven of them never really got their jobs back.

But for the women’s movement, the 1977-1979 strike was a resounding success. It was a huge chink in the armor of the institutional sexism women faced in the workplace. Women were becoming more common in the workplace and they demanded equal treatment and wages. It’s a battle that is still being fought today as women employees make only 77 cents to the male employee’s dollar nationally.

Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which guarantees women the right to equal pay, the problem was still common and sexism still casual in 1977 when trouble boiled over in Willmar. According to a story written by Asa Wilson in a 2006 edition of the Workday Minnesota newspaper, eight women — Doris Boshart, Sylvia Erickson, Jane Harguth, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Sandi Treml and Irene Wallin – grew tired of making nearly $300 per week less than their male counterparts.

"The starting salary for men averaged $700 per month, the same amount Boshart made after 10 years at the bank," Wilson recounted. They were also expected to work overtime without pay. The bank’s only female officer earned $4,000 less than her male counterparts, whom she supervised.

The issue came to a head in April 1977, when the women were told to train a young male employee, who was hired at a better wage, to become their boss, Wilson recounts. They went to see Bank President Leo Pirsch and demanded an end to the discrimination.

Pirsch told the women, “We’re not all equal, you know.” Men need more money because they have to pay for dates, he said.

Complaint filed with EEOC

Wilson’s narrative picks up the timeline of frustration: “The women 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." But “Ter Wisscha calls the ensuing negotiations ‘an absolute effort in futility."

So, on Dec. 16, 1977, the eight female bank employees went on strike, picketing the bank in a wind chill of -70 degrees below zero.

It was a strike many of the Willmar 8 thought was unnecessary. In a report written for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 Local 404 in St. Peter, members of the Willmar 8 said they thought it could have been averted. But, Novotny says, “They weren’t going to let a bunch of female employees tell them what to do.”

Instead, they became a cause célèbre for the Women’s Movement. They received thousands of cards. They appeared in national magazines. Phil Donahue featured them on his talk show, as did NBC’s "Today Show." Actress Lee Grant made a behind-the-scenes documentary. NBC made a TV movie.

Willmar community was split

But the 14,000 people in Willmar were split. Five female employees remained with the bank. Some businesses blacklisted the Willmar 8 for years. The strikers made huge personal and financial sacrifices. Their children lost friends. One striker’s marriage fell apart. The lawyer who took the Willmar 8’s case, John Mack, lost his position as county chair of the GOP but stayed with the case. 

Support did come. They received thousands of letters each week, many with donations. Many of the townspeople were sympathetic to their cause, honking and waving as they drove by.

The National Organization for Women sent supporters to join them on the picket line. At first, the Willmar 8 were wary of the NOW supporters. Feminism “was somebody else’s fight. They were the bra-burners and the radicals.” Ter Wisscha said. Then a NOW member told Ter Wisscha that feminism did not mean preventing women from staying home, but instead meant giving them choices.

“It was like a light bulb came on in my head. It was like, wow, I get it! I understand,” Ter Wisscha told Wilson.

On another February day, more than 250 people joined the United Automobile Workers at a support rally for the Willmar 8. “They were friends, they were supporters, and they did this without being asked,” Ter Wisscha said. It was not the last visit by UAW supporters, she said, and they always received a police escort out of town.

Summer of '78: Suit, demands dropped

The strike fund dried up in the summer of 1978 and the Willmar 8 dropped their discrimination lawsuit against the bank in exchange for a tiny financial settlement. In September, the strikers dropped their demands and offered to return to work without a contract, even though 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 was demoted from head bookkeeper to teller. The bank, which saw a severe drop-off in deposits, was sold, then sold again. In 1980, four of the women returned to work, though only Boshart stayed more than a few months.

Except for the small settlement in 1978, the Willmar 8 received no financial gain from the strike. The NLRB ruled in 1979 that the bank was guilty of unfair labor practices, but those practices did not cause the strike, therefore the strike was “economic” and no back pay was due.

But the women realized that even though they lost the battle, they were big players in the war against discrimination. Novotny remembers her mother-in-law noticing how women were treated with increased respect at the bank where she worked.

The Willmar 8 also remains in the classroom. Each year, Boshart receives letters from college students thanking her for her role in the struggle for women’s rights. 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."

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Comments (2)

An important story to revisit

Seeing the title of this article brought back a lot of memories of how working women were treated in 1977. It's better now, but there is still work to do. Thanks to the Willmar 8 for their courage, leadership, and persistence. They helped to pave the path many of us walked.

Unequal pay

Many of us have experienced this and apparently many still do given the existing pay gap between men and women. I worked for UPI in Chicago and did not know until after I had left it how much more a new-hire male was making over my salary. I also found out I was rewriting his stuff because it was so poor.