In November of 1976, the Citizen’s National Bank in Willmar, Minnesota, hired a young man. He had gotten the job because the bank president had lost a game of golf with the young man’s father. The women employees at the bank were told to train him in and “teach him everything you know, then he will be your supervisor. " This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was not the first time this had happened, but several of the women decided it would be the last. Armed with the information that these men were making almost twice as much as the women, several of the women went into the bank president’s office to protest. His answer was “We are not all equal you know. Men need to earn more, so they can take girls out on dates.” The women formed their own union and went out on strike on December 16, 1977. The windchill was 70 below zero.
If you were living in Minnesota in the 1970s, you may have heard of the Willmar 8. When I was writing my grant proposal, and imagining who I would like to include in my project of writing songs about people who had gone through big challenges in their lives, the Willmar 8 appeared in my mind. I was the same age as some of them, and I followed their story in the newspapers at the time. A product of those times, I was not shocked back then to hear they were making half as much as the men. It was common. I was very proud of them for taking on the status quo to try to right this wrong, and as I wrote the grant proposal, I was determined to find one of them and see if she would talk to me.
I read everything I could find on-line. Surprisingly, no one has written a book about the Willmar 8, though there is a documentary, narrated by Hollywood’s Lee Grant. http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/428416/The-Willmar-8/overview. I found this 1981 DVD at a Minneapolis public library. There are lots of articles on-line with quotes from Glennis Ter Wisscha, who was 19 when they went out on strike. I googled her, and found she now lives in the Twin Cities. I contacted her and she agreed to talk with me, in a restaurant in Minneapolis. Curtis snapped photos, as I turned on the Zoom digital recorder, and Glennis started painting pictures for us of a time that young women nowadays would find unbelievable.
Glennis is a very articulate women. She told me there was already a law in place, the Equal Pay Act of 1963. I asked how the bank got around that. She answered, first someone had to complain in order for there to be a violation.
She went on, “No one had complained. That’s what made this so remarkable (we didn’t know it at the time of course), because we were a group of women who just knew that is was wrong. And we were also a labor movement. That’s one of the things that was unique about us. There was the feminist movement who saw us as a feminist issue, there was the labor movement who saw us as a labor issue, but we didn’t identify with either one of them separately, but the same, when we tried to negotiate for equal pay in the contract.”
She said none of them considered themselves “feminists.” They simply knew it was wrong. They formed their own union, “Bank Local One,” and filed a gender discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. Now that they were an official union, the bank was required by law to negotiate.
Glennis told me, “By law, they had to show up. No one could make them negotiate. They would sit there reading the newspaper. They were present. Nothing said they had to communicate.” She said the union members would make a request, and the bank officials would say, “No.”
The eight women realized the negotiations were going nowhere, so on December 16, 1977, they walked out of work and went on strike. It was a record cold winter, and Glennis and the others bundled up in snowmobile suits, scarves, hats, mittens, and snowmobile boots. Glennis recalls her eyelashes freezing shut from the bitter cold.
In this photo from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Glennis is near the middle, holding the sign that says, “We protest slave labor.”
The strike stretched on and on, through freezing cold winter through hot, humid, rainy summer. They were on the line every day. Glennis said, “It was our job. We were always there during banking hours.”
As time went on, it became more evident that many of the townspeople were against their cause. As one man in the Lee Grant documentary said, “Oh, I say they should call it off. That’s what I think. After all, this is a Christian town and it’d be nice if we had peace.” Glennis recalled getting the “silent treatment” from people she knew at the local grocery store in this town of 18,000. Glennis was married, but during the strike she and her husband parted ways. She said he just couldn’t understand how her consciousness was changing as she embraced the cause.
With no big union money backing them, it became increasingly harder for the eight women to make ends meet. In the documentary, the camera films Glennis at the grocery store, opting for a 23 cent can of soup rather than the vegetable beef that costs a few cents more.
With so many people against their cause, bitter cold weather, and a terribly hard economic situation, what kept them going?
Glennis says, “It was the Today show that gave us the moniker the Willmar 8. We couldn’t figure out what they were doing there.” Other national media came; television, newspapers and magazines. Then the letters started arriving from across the U.S. and across the globe.
Women everywhere sent whatever money they could, 5s or 10s, and begged them not to give up the cause. One female bank employee wrote, “They’re talking about you, you’re making an impact, they’re listening, things ARE getting better, please, please don’t stop. You’re doing this for all of us.” Glennis said, “Her one letter was 5 pages. After awhile it was no longer about or for us, if we quit, how could we say we’re quitting, and all these other women across the world were looking at us as if we’re doing something remarkable, to help THEM.”
In the song I wrote, “Willmar 8 (We Are All Equal You Know),” the chorus is sung by a “choir” we assembled of 11 Twin Cities women singers. They are the letter writers, singing, “The whole globe is watching you, it’s starting now to improve. You are doing this for all of us, please don’t stop, keep on you must....”
Glennis also told me, “One thing that kept us going is that we were right. There’s no way we could lose. So it was just a question of time. That was big. We never expected it was possible. Everything happened, and it was wrong.”
The strike dragged on for a year and three months. The only money coming in was from donations like the 5s and 10s in the letters they received. They also gave talks at the U of M and for various NOW groups, where they would pass the hat.
One scene from the documentary that really, really touched me was when the eight women are dividing up the donations, and Glennis puts her head down in her hands and says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” She was flat broke, and the small amount being doled out would not cover her bills. Teren says, “I’ve got my bills paid up. Give Glennis $40 out of my money.” They all agree that next time it could be any of them, and they will stick together and help each other out.
In March, 1979, a National Labor Relations Board judge handed down his ruling, saying 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. The strike was over.
As our conversation came to an end, Glennis said it was all worth it. The strike made a statement. As a result of pressure by working women, in 1978 the Department of Labor officially targeted the banking industry as a top priority for enforcement of equal opportunity.
Glennis said, “That was huge. (And) I know that the banks were the highest purchasers and renters of the documentary, on how not to do it in the future. So they learned something.”
She continued, “Also, we would have women who would acknowledge, because of what we had done, the timing of it all, that all of a sudden they got past that level of glass ceiling, that they were promoted to vice presidents, managers, and nothing else had changed, except for what was in the news.”
So the Willmar 8 lost the battle. But they helped win the war, and they are now in the history books. Thank you all for fighting this battle for us, Glennis Ter Wisscha, Doris Boshart, Irene Wallin, Sylvia Erickson Koll, Jane Harguth Groothuis, Sandi Treml, Teren Novotny, and Shirley Solyntjes.
Loretta interviewed Glennis Ter Wisscha in Minneapolis on May 18, 2015 (Curtis was the photographer!)