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Impact of Willmar 8 Still Felt Today

By Patricia Buschette

The Willmar 8 photographed back in the late 1970s, shortly after they stood up to unfair business practices. Back (L to R) Sandi Treml, Shirley Solyntjes, Jane Harguth Doris Boshart; Front (L to R) Irene Wallin, Glennis TerWisscha, Sylvia Erickson, and Teren Novotny. Contributed photo

On occasions of social or political conflict, there are phrases that reverberate and are remembered for years – phrases such as “Remember the Alamo” or “A day that will live in infamy.”  In 1976, eight employees of Citizens National Bank of Willmar experienced injustice and fought back, remembering the frequent declaration of then bank president Leo Pirsch, “We are not all equal, you know.” It was a phrase that fueled their fight.

During coffee breaks at Citizens National Bank, employees Glennis TerWisscha, originally from Clara City; Jane Harguth, originally from Maynard; and Sandi Treml, Shirley Solyntjes, Teren Novotny, Sylvia Erickson, Doris Boshart and Irene Wallin from Willmar, said they had all experienced different forms of injustice. They said they were treated unfairly, passed over for promotion, paid less than men, and were expected to work overtime without payment.

A young man was hired by the bank and the female staff was instructed to train him. Their instruction? “Teach him everything you know. He will be your boss.” 

Irene Wallin asked, “If we are qualified to train him for the position, why are we not qualified to be considered for the position?” According to the women’s attorney, John Mack, managers were generally hired through such circumstances including family connections.

In April of 1977, the women called for the elimination of gender discrimination. Leo Pirsch ignored their petition, pointing out that men need more money to pay for their dates.

A month later, they filed a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. They also formed Minnesota’s first bank union, the Willmar Bank Employees Association. 

The Willmar 8... Teren Novotny, Sylvia Erickson, Sandi Treml, Shirley Solyntjes, Jane Harguth, Glennis TerWisscha, Irene Wallin and Doris Boshart, meet with Lt. Gov. Alec Olson and Gov. Rudy Perpich. Contributed photo.

The EEOC issued a ruling in June of 1977, stating that there was reasonable cause to believe there had been gender discrimination. The Board of Directors agreed to negotiate. “During negotiations, bank officials turned their backs on the women and read newspapers,” Sylvia said.

The group found that they could make no progress with the bank, and with Leo Pirsch’s pronouncement still ringing in their ears, on Dec. 16, 1977, they went on strike. It was a historically cold winter. “The 70 degrees below wind chill was the worst,” Irene Wallin said. “You walked fast and constantly... and wore a mask.”  She added, videographers had to thaw out cameras due to the 70-below wind chill.

Much of the community of Willmar refused to acknowledge the strike, and the women, their families, and their children, were often ostracized, said the women. Their attorney was adamant about their rights. “The bank never conceived of these women as possible management material,” he had said. “They hired the best possible women they could. They were high quality individuals.” 

However, support flowed from throughout the country and the world. The walls of their small headquarters at the Willmar labor hall were covered with notes of encouragement.

“Professors from Southwest State University did a study on why the group got along so well,” Sandi said. They agreed that the women shared anger. “We were all so darn mad. We had responsibility for all that money,” Irene said. Sylvia Koll said, “They can’t do that to us.” 

“God put you together,” a labor union rep suggested.  “It was loyalty to one another that kept us going, Teren Novotny said. Labor unions joined them as they picketed “There were the guards from the penitentiary in St. Cloud,” Irene remembered. No conclusion of the study was made known to the group.

Individuals and representatives of local women’s groups supported them on the picket line. Dody Davies of Willmar, who joined the picket line said, “It was something I had to do as a matter of justice.”

While much of the community put up a wall of silence, a service was held at the Unitarian Church to encourage them. There were supportive voices in the community. And the most surprising sources of encouragement came from Mike Pirsch, son of Leo Pirsch. “I hate injustice,” he said. “I came to believe that making money is not the most important thing.” 

The public screening of Pioneer PBS documentary produced by Dana Conroy, a native of Willmar, featured the attendance of Willmar Eight members (Left) Sylvia Koll, Sandi Treml, Teren Novotny and Irene Wallin. The location of the showing was moved to the Willmar Conference Center because of great public interest. The four were greeted with a standing ovation by the huge crowd. Contributed photo

Their effort continued to garner national and international support. They were asked to address groups including labor union groups, and school groups. They learned to articulate their case.

In an appearance early in the strike, Irene Wallin and Glennis TerWisscha went to the University of Minnesota to speak to a class. “We thought this was going to be a small group,” Irene said, “and we walked into an auditorium of 300 students!”

The documentary The Willmar Eight, directed by Lee Grant and produced by Mary Beth McCarthy Yarrow, told the story. “While released in 1981, it was filmed during the strike,” Sandi Treml said. 

Their appeal appeared on many venues including the Today Show when Harry Reasoner came to Willmar to film. Glennis TerWisscha appeared on game show What’s My Line? Sandi remembered, and Irene Wallin and Glennis TerWisscha appeared on The Phil Donahue Show. In the course of the Donahue show, the host called Citizens State Bank. He was told that Leo Pirsch wasn’t available, not at the time of the call, not later in the afternoon, and not the next day. 

While the novelty of the strike in the media waned, people continued to write letters with contributions. As the strike wore on, it was this support that sustained the women.

Their impact became clear when Citizens State Bank dropped from a 12+ percent growth rate in 1976, when the effort began, to 6 percent decline in 1979. In March of 1978 the bank was sold and Leo Pirsch resigned. 

In 1979, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling. The ruling declared that the bank was guilty of unfair labor practices, but those practices did not cause the strike. The ruling was that the strike was “economic.”  The bank was found guilty of an unfair labor practice in not inviting the union group to the company picnic. The strike was over.

Four of the Willmar Eight were offered their jobs back, but received no back pay, and soon left the bank. Doris Boshart remained with the successor bank for 25 years. Harassment made her work experience difficult. One day there was a note in her teller drawer with an animal cracker in the shape of a pig. The note said, “Doris – oink oink.” The others did not stay. 

“I was fired for making a mistake,” Sylvia Erickson, now Sylvia Koll said. It was a mistake that was never justified. She was later employed at GlenOaks Senior Living. Sandi Treml and Teren Novotny both were later employed by Ridgewater College, Sandi in records and registration, and Teren in purchasing.  Irene Wallin left the bank to manage a store for Midwest Vision. All the women are now retired.

“There has been a reawakening of situations in banking,” Teren Novotny pointed out “A teller from another bank asked me ‘Are you going to win?’ I asked her if the standards had improved in her bank since we started. She said yes. I responded, “Then we have won.”

It is said that banks used the 1981 documentary as a guideline for employment issues. Something had been learned as women were promoted to vice presidents and managers.

They risked everything; their job, friendships, family, incurring the hostility of their community and their church, simply for the right to claim their own equality and self-worth.

Their influence continues. College students write thanking them for their role in the fight for women’s rights. They have been cited in high school classes as examples that small groups can make change. A housing cooperative in Toronto is named after them, known as The Willmar Eight Co-op.

The story of the Willmar Eight was updated on Jan. 10, 2024, at a public screening of Eight Women Alone Together at the Willmar Conference Center (WCC). Scheduled to be shown at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society; the location being moved to the Willmar Conference Center because of great public interest. The four members were greeted with a standing ovation by the huge crowd.

Since 1977, two of the women have died; Doris Boshart died in 2005 and Glennis TerWisscha in 2021. Studies and documentaries continue to emerge retrospectively considering the impact of the strike. Two have moved from the Willmar area including Shirley Solyntjes and Jane Harguth Groothuis.

Many say their contribution to the rights of women in the workforce and their influence cannot be measured. Irene’s grandson came home from school one day with great excitement. His news encapsulates the group’s influence. “Grandma!” He exclaimed, “You are in the history books!”  

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