Women, Unions and Economic Justice

Women, Unions and Economic Justice

                                       By: John Spiegelhoff

Minnesota has a rich and proud tradition regarding economic justice for all workers.  There are defining events such as the Iron Range strikes of 1907 & 1916 and the 1934 Minneapolis General Strike.  But there is a little known and equally important event that happened in 1977 in Willmar, Minnesota which fundamentally changed women’s rights in the workplace for the better.  This historical event has been called the Willmar 8.

The Willmar 8 were eight female employees of the Citizens National Bank in Willmar, Minnesota, who went on strike on December 16, 1977 over charges of sex discrimination. The tellers and bookkeepers were protesting unequal pay and unequal opportunities for advancement versus their male counterparts at work.   At the Citizens National Bank, women were making $300.00 less per week than their male coworkers.   That was a lot of money at that time.  Bank President Leo Pirsch told the women, “We’re not all equal, you know. Men need more money because they have to pay for dates.”   Enough was enough. These proud and determined women set up a picket line outside the bank when the wind chill was -70°F (Source: Wikipedia)

In the short term, things didn’t work out so well for the Willmar 8. For nearly two years they picketed in front of downtown Willmar’s Citizens National Bank. They never got their pay increases; the NCLB said it was an “economic” strike, so they never got strike-related compensation; and after the strike, seven of them never really got their jobs back. (Source: Minnpost.com).  We must never forget what these courageous women accomplished in the years that followed.

The Willmar 8 strike brought attention to the appalling economic disparity between men and women in the workplace.  Women started to receive increased pay and more advancement opportunities as a direct result of the Willmar 8.  But there is still much more work to do.  Today women still only make 79 cents to the male employee’s dollar.  Thankfully unions are the great equalizer for women. 

No matter what job you do in a unionized workplace, there is a set rate of pay agreed upon by the employer and the union who represents employees in the workplace.  Men and women receive equal pay for equal work when they are represented by a Union.   

So if you want equal pay for equal work-organize and get a union in your workplace.  The Willmar 8 would be proud that their legacy of economic justice for women carries on.