For nearly two years, eight female employees of Willmar's Citizens National Bank, dubbed the Willmar 8, picketed in front of their downtown workplace seeking pay equity. They never got pay increases, they never got strike-related compensation, and after the strike, only one woman returned to work at the bank for more than a few months. But for the women's movement, the 1977–1979 strike was a resounding success. It was a chink in the armor of the institutional sexism women faced in the workplace.
Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which guarantees women the right to equal pay, unequal treatment was still common in 1977 when trouble boiled over in Willmar. According to the pro-union Workday Minnesota newspaper, the eight women—Doris Boshart, Sylvia Erickson Koll, Jane Harguth Groothuis, Teren Novotny, Shirley Solyntjes, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Sandi Treml, and Irene Wallin—grew tired of making nearly 300 dollars per week less than their male counterparts. They were also expected to work overtime without pay.
The issue came to a head in April 1977, when the women were told to train a young male employee who had been hired at a better wage and would eventually become their supervisor. They had not been allowed to apply for the job themselves. 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.
The women filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In May 1977, they formed Minnesota's first bank union, the Willmar Bank Employees Association Local 1.
On December 16, 1977, with negotiations between the bank officers and new union stalled, the eight women went on strike, picketing the bank in a wind chill of seventy degrees below zero. They became the cause célèbre of the women's movement. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) sent supporters to join them on the picket line. Phil Donahue featured them on his talk show, as did NBC's "Today Show." Actress Lee Grant made a behind-the-scenes documentary, and NBC produced a TV movie.
The 14,000 citizens of Willmar, however, were split. Some businesses blacklisted the Willmar 8 for years. The strikers made 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.
The strike fund dried up in the summer of 1978, and the Willmar 8 dropped their discrimination suit against the bank in exchange for a token financial settlement. In September 1978, the strikers called off 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, and she was demoted from head bookkeeper to teller.
The bank, which saw a severe drop-off in deposits, was sold, and 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 stated that those practices did not cause the strike; therefore the strike was "economic," and no back pay was due.
The women realized that even though they had lost the battle, they were big players in the war against discrimination. Novotny remembers her mother-in-law noticing that women were treated with increased respect at the bank where she worked after the strike was carried out.
The Willmar 8 left a lasting legacy. Decades later, the strikers were still receiving letters from college students thanking them for their role in the struggle for women's rights. At Willmar Junior High School, history teacher Suzanne Nelson teaches her students about the Willmar 8 in a local history course to show them how small groups of citizens can challenge large institutions.
Minnesota Historical Society. MN150: The Willmar 8.
"The Willmar 8 Made Equal Pay Impossible to Ignore." American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 Local 404,St. Peter.
Wilson, Asa. "Decades later, Willmar 8 are heroes to a new generation." Workday Minnesota, August 6, 2006.
In April, 1977, eight female employees at Citizens National Bank in Willmar are told to train a young male employee who has been hired at a better wage. When they complain, Bank President Leo Pirsch tells them, "We're not all equal, you know."