40th anniversary of the Willmar 8: First bank strike in Minnesota was in Willmar
WILLMAR — It's Dec. 16, 1977.
A group of women employees of Citizens National Bank stand outside the bank in a picket line despite the cold Minnesota air. They hold homemade signs urging Citizens National Bank, formerly located on Second Street Southwest in Willmar, to offer equal pay and equal opportunities for advancement in their workplace.
On that day in mid-December, this group of women, now known as the Willmar 8, participated in the first bank strike in Minnesota. Forty years later, the Willmar 8, consisting of Irene Wallin, Sylvia Erickson Koll, Sandi Treml, Teren Novotny, Doris Boshart, Shirley Solyntjes, Jane Harguth Groothuis and Glennis Ter Wisscha, are nationally regarded as pioneers for championing women's rights in the workplace.
This recognition did not come easily, though.
After a male loan officer candidate was hired without prior notification to other employees that the position was available, several of these women filed discrimination complaints against the Citizens National Bank in Willmar in the fall of 1976 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.
"A lot of the bank's responses was reactionary. They hung up a poster in the break room that said 'we won't discriminate' and that was it," said Teren Novotny, a member of the Willmar 8.
Irene Wallin, another Willmar 8 member, said this type of workplace discrimination still occurs today. She said oftentimes women are placed in higher leadership positions but are not paid the same as a male counterpart would.
"Oftentimes young women today don't realize what's happening and think it's OK," Wallin said.
After filing complaints federally, the women formed the Willmar Bank Employees Association, the first bank union in the state, in May of 1977. This union was later recognized as a bargaining unit by the National Labor Relations Board. The Willmar Bank Employees Association then filed additional complaints of unfair labor practices and discrimination because of their union membership with the NLRB. This pushed them to hold the first bank strike in the state.
Little did they know this strike would last for two years — two years they regarded as two of the longest, coldest years of their lives. During that time, members of the Willmar 8 would be on the picket line fighting each day for equal opportunity.
"We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into," Willmar 8 member Sylvia Erickson Koll said.
In September of 1978, the union members were offered the chance to return to work at Citizens National Bank, but they could return only as job vacancies occurred.
That was not enough for the Willmar 8.
"The alternative was to just walk away from it and drop it, and we were not going to do that," Koll said.
Then in 1979, the NLRB ruled that the bank was guilty of only minor discrimination and the women were denied their previous jobs and back pay. The Willmar Bank Employees Association filed an appeal. The NLRB also ruled that the strike was conducted for economic reasons rather than discriminatory practices, allowing the bank to be guilty of only minor violations.
This ruling came as a surprise to the women. They always thought it was "when they win" rather than "if they win," Wallin said.
"When we went to court, we thought that if you went in there and you told the truth that they would listen to you. That's not necessarily so, we found out," Wallin said about the NLRB ruling.
Wallin believes workplace equality has still not been reached and urges women to continue sticking up for their rights. The same passion this group of women had to make a change, she said, should still be the standard in order to make a change.
"I don't think we've gotten far enough yet. We're not there. We're not at a dollar for a dollar. So until we get there, people have to keep moving," Wallin said.
The women used each other as support throughout the entire process. Living in a small town, the women said community members were reluctant to take a stand and align with a controversial issue.
"I still wonder why no one on the city council or the mayor came to talk to us. For two years during that time, they never asked us why we were doing it," Wallin said.
Their actions to fight for their rights impacted their family and their social circles too.
"There were things that happened to us on a personal level, and even to your kids. All of my three kids were in school during that time. You had to have your family's support in order to get by," said Wallin
Now, the women have had documentaries made about them, they receive interview requests regularly, have had songs written about them, and a housing cooperative in Toronto, Canada, is named after them: The Willmar Eight Co-op. Many of their supporters are from their peers and younger generations wanting to learn about their experiences.
Looking back on the 40th anniversary of the Willmar 8's first strike, several of the women have seen progress but believe issues of sexism and discrimination in the workplace still press the current generations.
Novotny said it was uplifting to see schools providing opportunities for young women and girls to become interested in typically male-dominated professions, such as science, math and technical industries.
Willmar 8 member Sandi Treml said sexism in the workplace still exists, but has improved over time.
"It's a couple steps forward and a couple steps back," said Treml. "It doesn't just progress and keep going. That's why you have to continually keep fighting."
Koll, like Treml, thinks it is a slow wake-up call for the community to provide equal opportunities.
"I keep on thinking," Koll said. "How long is this going to take?"