They Haven't Broken Their Bank Yet, but Without Equality, the 'Willmar Eight' Will Keep on Walking

updated 11/27/1978 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1978 AT 01:00 AM EST

For nearly a year they have stomped the pavement outside the Citizens National Bank in rural (pop. 14,400) Willmar, Minn.—eight women, ranging in age from 20 to 47, united in the belief that the bank is unjust. In cold weather they don two pairs of long underwear and watch each other's faces for symptoms of frostbite; in summer, they strip down to halter tops and shorts. "We're not radicals," says teller Sylvia Erickson, 29, "but we have beliefs. We think people should be free to do what they want."

In this case, what Erickson and her Photographs fellow employees wanted was the opportunity to be promoted on their merits. Instead, they were forced to initiate the first and only bank strike in Minnesota history—one that has irrevocably changed the lives of ordinary women who felt they had been pushed to the wall. Their rebellion began two years ago, when some of the women were asked to train a new male employee. When they discovered that he would be earning more to start than any of them was being paid after as many as 10 years on the job, they went to bank president Leo Pirsch to complain—and got the Archie Bunker response, "We're not all equal, you know." Incensed, they hired a lawyer and filed suit with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which promptly passed on their complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Three months later, after the EEOC found that the women had reasonable grounds for a sex discrimination case, they voted to form a union, souring relations with Pirsch even further.

Soon afterward some of the union members were given raises, while others were not ("They were trying to get us to argue among ourselves," says one of the strikers). Several women tellers were shifted to the less desirable drive-up window slots. Then, a year ago, the bank made the women's hours longer without raising their pay. A month later they voted to hit the bricks and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Reaction to the walkout has been mixed, though the women have received dozens of letters of support. One antagonist, however, sent a striker eight pacifiers and a note saying, "A much needed gift for you and the other seven crybabies." Financially, the dispute has been costly. The strikers have had to fall back on contributions from sympathetic individuals and from groups like the National Organization for Women. Says teller Irene Wallin, 40: "I don't buy new clothes, and my husband and I don't go out much anymore."

But the bank is having problems as well. Several depositors have withdrawn their accounts, and on management's part, bitterness has apparently replaced uneasy tolerance. Until this summer there was a space in front of the building where the strikers could park a car and store their placards. Then city workers arrived and put up a NO PARKING sign. Ironically, the bank president's son, Michael Pirsch, works for a service employees' union that has supported the strikers.

By far the most dramatic effect of the strike has been on the womenthemselves. "In the past two or three months they have been pretty much on their own," says John Mack, their lawyer. "They weren't tough when they started, but they are now." One striker, Glennis Andresen, 20, represented the Willmar Eight at last summer's ERA rally in Washington, D.C. Another teller, Sandi Treml, 24, ran for city council this year but lost. "I am more sure of myself," finds Sylvia Erickson. "I realize you can do things you never thought you could."

Earlier this fall the strikers wrote a letter to the bank requesting their unconditional reinstatement. Seven were informed they had been "permanently replaced." (The other, Doris Boshart, was rehired at a lower level.) While still awaiting an NLRB decision in their case, the Willmar Eight reached a federally mediated agreement with the bank that met most of their demands for equality. But until a final resolution can be attained, the women plan to stay on the picket line. "If we don't win," sums up Erickson, "there is something wrong with the system."

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