From Willmar 8 to MAPE: Teren Novotny retires from Ridgewater College
When Teren Novotny retired recently after nearly 40 years at Ridgewater College in Willmar, the college lost one of its longest-serving employees and MAPE lost a longtime member leader. Both organizations also lost claim to a piece of Minnesota and national labor history: a member of the Willmar 8, eight women bank employees who went on strike over sex discrimination charges in 1977.
Pictured above, Teren Novotny, third from the left, and the other Willmar 8 members protesting.
Novotny worked at Ridgewater College for 37 years, primarily as a purchasing clerk. She said she’s always liked her job and working in higher education because “We’re exposed to more social issues and inclusion as a means to broaden our perspective by the college bringing in speakers because we can participate in the activities they provide for students.”
Novotny said she has always enjoyed being part of a union, “I was active in MAPE most of my years, holding offices and participating in activities in Local 1801 and at Delegate Assembly.
Local 1801 includes all state agencies in the southwest corner of the state. “MAPE has been great as far as working to maintain contact with the local via on-line meetings, which were initiated long before COVID-19. It’s great to have this means to connect, but I miss the meetings when we gathered at worksite,” Novotny said.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Willmar 8 strike. In December 1977, Novotny and seven other bank tellers and bookkeepers began the longest bank strike in United States history when they walked off the job over unequal pay and unequal opportunities for advancement.
“We were all angry enough to go on strike and I was fortunate to have support from my family. I was hired after the initial lawsuits were filed, so I was not named in them. I sought out more information from the women at the bank after a junior officer approached me and warned me that being on probation I had better not get involved with those women because it would cause me to lose my job. His warning only made me more inquisitive to find out what was going on. With this information I was able to see that it was important for me to be a part of the action,” Novotny said.
The strike against Citizens National Bank of Willmar repeatedly made national news broadcasts and newspapers and helped spark equal pay discussions around the country. “The Willmar 8” documentary, directed by Lee Grant, was also produced in 1981. “We found that our efforts as the Willmar 8 did not result in the changes we had hoped for at the time, but with all the focus on women’s rights during this time there were changes made that we were able to benefit from over time,” she said.
In 2001, Novotny participated in her second strike when MAPE and AFSCME members struck over healthcare costs and other issues. “Comparing the two strikes is impossible – the sheer numbers of people who could man the picket line alone. I was thankful everyone within MAPE and AFSCME at my college campus honored the picket line.
“My husband told me we couldn’t afford to have me be on strike. I told him, ‘Wouldn’t that make a good newspaper story, one of the Willmar 8 crosses the picket line? There’s no way you’re going to talk me into not honoring that picket line.’ It’s just to the core of me to be a union member and participate and follow the union’s decisions,” Novotny added.
Novotny said she continues to be asked about the Willmar 8, particularly by students across the country. “We are all humble when people tell us what a big difference we made. It goes to show that anyone can make change with an effort. None of us were highly educated. It just takes mainly a little stubbornness in that case to realize the inequity of the situation and ask for something different – for a change to be made,” she said.
Novotny and her husband have two sons born after the Willmar 8 strike. Novotny said, “Both sons are very aware of my history and proud of my accomplishments. I am also honored by our youngest son, an employee with the Department of Natural Resources, who signed his card for full participation in his union."