Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Glennis Ter Wisscha and the Willmar 8

When I moved to Minnesota in the mid-1980s, there were a number of news stories that I quickly learned about. Every area has stories like this that have been going on for a while, and that it's assumed everyone knows about. When you first move to a place, you don't know about them and you have to play catchup.

A few of Minnesota's at the time were the Hormel strike in Austin, the Andrea Dworkin-Catherine MacKinnon anti-pornography civil rights ordinance in Minneapolis, and the case of the Willmar 8.

I had almost forgotten about the Willmar 8 until last week when I saw an obituary in the Star Tribune for Glennis Ter Wisscha, who died recently at the age of 62 (my age, but let's not think about that).

She was just 19 in 1977 when she and seven other women bank tellers went on strike against the Citizens National Bank of Willmar for sex discrimination. (Willmar is a small city about a hundred miles west of Minneapolis.)

Essentially, the women were outraged because the bank's loan department hired a man at a higher starting wage than the women were getting and then told the women to train him. To top it off, the bank president went on record with one of the women employees as saying, "We're all not equal, you know."

I shake my head as I report that their strike was not successful: the National Labor Relations Board — even though this was pre-Reagan — ruled that despite the bank's use of unfair labor practices, the strike wasn't justified. So the women were called back to work without back pay.

A documentary was made about their case in 1981 by actor Lee Grant, and a few years later there was a TV movie called A Matter of Sex.

Glennis Ter Wisscha did not go back to the bank, I'm happy to report. Instead, she became a union organizer, then worked in affordable housing and for a community land trust in Minneapolis.

I'm sorry I didn't know more about her before now.

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