Nothing much happens here in the gentle hills of west-central Minnesota. This is farm country, the kind of place where the sky is read more than the afternoon newspaper.
The two biggest events of the year are the opening of fishing season in the spring and the opening of hunting season in the fall.
So, when eight women at Citizens National Bank went on strike almost six months ago it caused more than a little stir.
"The first reaction was people didn't believe it. My god, walk right out of a bank and set up a picket line? Here in Willmar, Minnesota?" Gale Watkins, who works at the state hospital on the outskirts of this city of 17,000, recalled.
"This is a pretty conservative place. Sure, every once in a while those railroad guys go on strike for a couple days. But a bunch of women? Never. Some people haven't gotten over it yet."
The bank strike is the first in Minnesota history, and one of the few ever in the country, according to the American Bankers Association. Only a handful of banks in the nation, for that matter, are unionized.
The strike has become something of a cause celebre among unions and feminists in the state. Various groups and individuals have kicked in almost $30,000 to the strikers, who call themselves "the Willmar Eight." The Minnesota Education Association alone has donated $6,000.
Bank President Leo Pirsch has also tried to rally support, mailing letters to fellow bankers asking them to donate to a legal defense fund. "They're attacking all banks by attacking us," he says.
It would be easy to say the case of Citizens National Bank is a microcosm of great social forces coming to a head in a symbolic battle of the sexes, or of organized labor against the robber barons of big capitalism.
But it is not. It is really a story of eight women who got fed up with a belligerently crass bank president and walked off their jobs one week before Christmas last year.
Many of Pirsch's fellow bankers, for instance, have little sympathy for hissituation. "Leo wouldn't have had a labor problem if he'd treated his people the way I treat mine," says one small town Minnesota banker who refused to donate to the defense fund. "I feel he's like Bert Lance.His bank is giving banking a poor image just like Lance did."
The case, however, involves a host of intruguing issues, including: the place of women in society, equal pay for equal work, the unionization of white-collar employes, and the relationship between male-dominated unions and the feminist movement.
How they all happened to come to rest in Willmar, the seat of Kandiyohi County, offers insight into the changes that have swept the country in recent years.
Irene Wallin, who worked nine years for the bank, and Doris Boshart, who worked 10, don't know exactly when everything began to reach a critical juncture.
Maybe it was when they were told to work after hours without pay as barmaids at an all-male golf tournament sponsored by the bank. Maybe it was when the bank held its annual picnic and didn't invite women who had filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Or the day when Pirsch told them, "We're not all equal, you know."
Salaries paid women at the bank were always low, just a hair over the federal minimum wage for starting employes. But no one complained. "It's the status of working at a bank," says Glennis Andresen. "As soon as I got a job at the bank, all my relatives were impressed. They thought I was making a lot of money because so much went through my hands every day."
But a month after she went to work a young man with no experience was hired at the bank. He was paid $700 a month or $300 more than Andresen, $125 more than Wallin and $96 more than Boshart. Matters were made worse when the bank published the man's picture in the local newspaper as a new employe - something it had never done for any of its female employes.
The bank later maintained that the man, who had a college degree which none of the women did, was a management trainee. He was promoted to a loan officer. The striking women claim they were never given a chance to apply for that job.
They formed a union, Willmar Bank Employes Association, Local 1. After six months of unsuccessful negotiations, they voted to strike.
Similar situations exist at scores of banks, says their lawyer John Mack, the mayor of the nearby town of New London and a Harvard Law School graduate. "A national bank charter is like a license to sit under a money faucet with your mouth open. Yet banks have always paid lousy wages. Women have always put up with it because they thought the job had prestige."
"Up until two years ago, you could go into almost any bank and see all the tellers in the front were women and you'd look at the back and you'd see all males in the offices with the oak-paneled walls," he adds.
But why should there be a strike in Willmar rather than somewhere else?
Mack attributes it to a combination of Pirsch's management anties and the women involved. "It is always little things that cause revolutions," he says.
There is no sign of a settlement six months after the strike began. The EEOC has proposed a settlement of the sex discrimination charge in which the bank would pay the women a total of $15,440 in back pay but does not admit discrimination. Another complaint is pending at the National Labor Relations Board.
Here in Willmar hardly anyone notices the strike anymore. The West Central Daily Tribune, the city's newspaper, rarely reports on it and refuses to print letters to the editor on the subject because that would be "washing dirty linen in print."
"We've kept our mitts off that one from the start," says Editor O.B. Auguston.
"The majority of people are kind of tired of it all. We'd just like to see it end," stays Gene Olson, a barber. "There are a lot of mixed feelings about it. I guess I'm from the old school. If you don't like a job, i think you should quit and find another one."
Pirsch insists the strike has not hurt business, although bank officers at times have said deposits were down more than $600,000.
"We're getting a lot of support," he says. "Our bank is profitable. We're at a new high in assets."
He says he sticks by both his belief that "we're not all equal" and that none of the women out on strike was qualified for promotion into management.
Another woman, who originally joined the strikers in complaining of sex discrimination, has a low-level management job.
What qualifications are necessary for management? "They have to have some business background and savvy," Pirsch replies.
On the picketline in front of the bank, the strikers yell, "scabs, whores," as their replacements go to work each day. They are now attempting to raise enough money to keep the strike going through next winter.
Individually, their financial situations aren't much different than before the strike. Their strike fund has been enough to give them money to almost match their pre-strike earnings.
Mack thinks money will keep flowing in from unions and feminists. "It's important for the unions. If they win they make a real contact point between unionism and feminism," he says. "If they lose this one, it will look like labor left them in the lurch."