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A ‘thug’ no more? Minnesota’s most outspoken labor leader looks back at 14 years of being ‘loud and sometimes obnoxious’

As he prepares to step down as head of SEIU Local 26, Javier Morillo — the self-styled ‘thug in pastels’ — talks about how Minnesota politics has changed. 

Javier Morillo
After 14 years as head of SEIU Local 26, Javier Morillo is stepping down.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Javier Morillo was an accidental labor leader.

In 2002, his unhappiness with the 2002 election results — Minnesotans had rejected Walter Mondale’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat that had been held by the recently deceased Paul Wellstone — had made the Ph.D. candidate sour on academia. So after finishing up a teaching job at Macalester College, he took his first job in a new field, as a political field organizer for the state council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

But not long after he started, the union’s Local 26 — whose membership was made up primarily of janitors and security guards — needed a new president. “The demographics had changed dramatically under the watch of the former president,” Morillo said this week. “He spoke no Spanish at the time; the union was overwhelmingly Latino and Spanish speaking. And so (the recruiter) says to me, ‘You know, it has to be someone who speaks Spanish, preferably someone who’s Latino.’”

Morillo thought the recruiter was asking him to help them find a good candidate. After all, he’d been on the job all of six months at that point. “Instead,” recalled Morillo, “he said, ‘We think you can do it.’ I thought he was crazy.”

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Given the changes in union membership, there may not be such a thing as a “typical” union leader anymore. Even so, Morillo has a background that might be unmatched in its uniqueness. The gay son of Puerto Rican parents, he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was stationed in the U.S. Army. A graduate of Yale, Morillo has been, at some point or another: a Ph.D. candidate in history and anthropology at the University of Michigan; a spoken word artist; a college professor; a political activist and strategist; a TV commentator; and a member of the Democratic National Committee.

“I used to joke that I was working very hard to make sure that my biography was not titled the ‘Rapid Rise and Fall of a Labor Leader,’ because I had the rapid rise part down. It was a very unusual path.”

Now, after 14 years as head of SEIU Local 26, he is stepping down. Between packing up his office in northeast Minneapolis, he talked about the intersection of union leadership and political activism today — and how Minnesota politics has changed during his time in the state.

“I very quickly realized that had I gone into politics the way that I thought I was going to, I would have eventually felt about that world the way I did about academia, which is that I felt very detached from reality,” he said.

But the union job allowed him to be “very, very grounded,” he said. “A lot of people work in progressive policy world … don’t actually have a relationship with poor people. And I say that not as a slam on them, but as a description of over very siloed society.” 

‘You cannot make invisible labor visible by being quiet’

Morillo’s time as head of Local 26 coincided with a dramatic change in the relationship between big companies and their low-wage workers. Rather than directly employ the security guards and janitors who made up the local’s membership, big companies started subcontracting with vendors, which meant that Morillo wasn’t negotiating with Target or the manager of a large downtown office building anymore; he was dealing with subcontractors.

And while department stores or real estate managers might be concerned about their standing in a community, a position that could be damaged by mistreating workers, the vendors were less exposed. They also couldn’t do much on their own.

“When we sit at the bargaining table and we’re sitting across from a subcontractor, they are not powerful people,” Morillo said. “They do not have money. The raise that we win or lose at the bargaining table happens when their clients signal to them how much they’re willing to put up with in a rate increase.”

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So he took the fight to the companies directly. In 2007, for example, he organized a protest at the annual meeting of the Building Owners and Managers Association — at a golf club in Golden Valley. The owners didn’t like that, but they noticed.

The union’s experience with Target is an example of how public pressure on the end client can get results for workers who don’t technically work for the retailer. “You can’t let any  of the clients off the hook,” said Morillo. “If we’re in a fight, they are obviously a player in that fight. But also, if we want a different kind of labor relations in the city, they can be involved. Target’s actually a good example of a client that we went from being kind of at war with to having a solid working relationship with. We’ve resolved a number of issues with them.”

Morillo has a reputation himself — that of a funny but sharp-tongued political adversary with equally sharp elbows, and those who’ve taken him on have often have scars to memorialize the confrontation.

Morillo said part of his reputation is well-earned, but part of it comes from the fact that he doesn’t really do Minnesota Nice. “I think that’s a role I’m happy to play in Minnesota politics, being loud and sometimes obnoxious.” he said. “But sometimes loud is very relative. I have one way of being, and I am Puerto Rican, raised on the island, and I am an expressive person. And in Minnesota, sometimes that means that people think I am angry when I am not. I’m just saying what I feel. I always joke that I get in trouble because when I speak, I say what I mean and it confuses people.”

But he said there are issues and problems that don’t get noticed if voices are too soft, if tactics are too polite. “There are many, many issues, especially when it comes to communities like immigrant communities, where we literally are not seen if there’s not a rally during the day because janitors work at night and security officers they do rounds at night,” he said. “You cannot make invisible labor visible being quiet.”

Morillo has described himself as a “thug in pastels,” which he used as the title to a blog he started, and a play off commenters who called him a thug in reference to his union activities. “I would always respond, ‘Dude, I’m wearing pastels.’ Like, update your invective, right? This is just a very old vision of what a union boss is. And, you know, hilarious when applied to me.”

“One thing that is very different, I’d say, about politics today in Minnesota from 14 years ago, when I started, is that the voices of people of color are more prominent, and there are more of them,” Morillo said. “We have a long way to go, but there are a lot more people demanding a seat at the table or, rather, being heard and making themselves heard.”

‘Minnesota-ness is a thing. That’s not true in other states.’

Morillo has also been one of a quartet of politicos who regularly appear on the podcast “Wrong About Everything,” where he and fellow progressive Carin Mrotz talk about politics with two conservatives, Amy Koch and Brian McDaniel.

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He said he thinks the creation of the podcast was a reaction to a state of political discourse that preceded the current president. “We can disagree vehemently and not be mortal enemies, and it not mean that it’s like, ‘Let’s find some common ground,’” Morillo said.  

“And now that project feels both many, many times more challenging, but also many times more important,” he said.  “I so deeply treasure the fact that I am in a relationship with Republicans. … I didn’t know any before.”

Another recent project that doesn’t sync with his politics-as-contact-sport persona is the Greater Than Fear campaign. Launched during the 2018 campaign, the project was a collaboration among SEIU Minnesota, Education Minnesota and Faith in Minnesota, and was designed to take advantage of the sense by many that Minnesota is different, and even, yes, exceptional.

The signature advertisement featured a group of people disguised in heavy parkas helping to clear snow from a car to help it get moving. Only when the group gets inside and begin to remove their winter wear does the viewer see that they are white, black, Somali and Hmong, and was meant as a response to what the backers saw as an effort by some candidates in the 2018 election to exploit race and immigration as political issues.

“I looked at the 2016 math and realized that 2018 felt like a crossroads,” Morillo said. “That we could either become Wisconsin or we need to really seriously deal with what is, shorthand, the urban-rural divide, right? And in Minnesota we have a particular ability to do that because Minnesota is a state where Minnesota-ness is a thing. That’s not true in other states.

“Minnesotans don’t leave Minnesota, and if they do they come back and they have family or they’re connected in many ways to other parts of the state. So the urban-rural divide makes sense when they’re categories. But when we actually start talking to people — about themselves and their family members — then it’s a different story.”

That way of thinking is usually the domain of the native Minnesotan, not someone who moved here less than 20 years ago, and Morillo agrees that, to many natives, he is still a newcomer.

“I am willing to accept that Minnesotans absolutely believe themselves to be exceptional. And so it is a thing,” he said. “I also believe that it is a pretty exceptional place. It’s a great state in all this weirdness and quirks. But I joke with people that I was working on a Ph.D. in anthropology and history. I was trained in the art and science of observing and analyzing and coming to conclusions about exotic cultures. So it prepared me well for Minnesota.”

‘I don’t go looking for heroes or saviors’

Morillo said he thinks it is important for unions, especially private sector unions, to be involved in politics in a way that not only promotes unionism but that stands up for all lower-paid people in the workforce. To that end, the SEIU has been a leader in the $15 NOW minimum wage fight and the interconnected drives for paid leave and fair scheduling.

Morillo supported Betsy Hodges for mayor of Minneapolis in 2013 and 2017. He also backed Hillary Clinton in the contested 2016 Democratic presidential race and Tim Walz for governor last year.

Those candidates were not considered the most progressive in the field, something that sometimes put Morillo at odds with other activists. “I think that the distinction is that I have very clear in my head that I don’t go into the political realm looking for heroes or saviors,” he said. “I think that our role is to elect the best people possible. Sometimes that means supporting people you may not agree with 100 percent.

“I can’t enter a negotiation with our employers and be like, ‘This is what we want and if you don’t give us everything we’re gonna strike right now.’ That’s not a negotiation. And my members would not be happy with that position because we wouldn’t win. People, I think, confuse negotiation with compromising your values. And I don’t think those two things are the same. One can pass a bill that is imperfect now that leads to a more perfect tomorrow; I think it’s putting your values into place to not stand in the way of progress.”

To many progressive activists, Walz and Peggy Flanagan weren’t considered progressive enough, at least not as compared to Erin Murphy, who won the DFL endorsement but lost to Walz in the primary. But Morillo disagrees. Walz and Flanagan “won on a progressive message, on a progressive vision,” he said.

He also didn’t think Murphy could win in both the cities and in Greater Minnesota in a general election. “A lot of my friends —who I love dearly but who are organizers of the progressive movement in Minnesota — I think were participating in a different reality. It was bizarre how that became this strict dividing line that we often do on the progressive side.”

What’s next

Morillo has already started his new position as a research fellow with the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers. He will remain in Minnesota, where is interviewing workers and conducting research, all with the purpose of writing a book that will try to change the narrative about immigrants by looking at their stories as whole human beings, not just social problems or victims.

As he leaves, Morillo said he is happy to have accomplished something that was a goal from the start. He recalled talking to fellow Macalester professor Peter Rachleff about his reluctance to lead a union when he’d never been a union worker.

“What he said stuck with me has sort of stayed with me for years,” Morillo said. “He said it’s pretty clear that the union’s going to be led by an outsider, whether it’s you or someone else or someone coming from outside the state. So maybe we should think about what kind of a union you want to build so that when you leave, the union doesn’t have the same problem.”

The new president of Local 26 is Iris Altamirano, a Cornell graduate and the daughter of an immigrant janitor. She has served on staff at the union for more than 4 years, working in every department, and will be the local’s first Latina president. The paid leadership is now 60 percent former workers.

“When I started thinking about stepping aside I know we have a fantastic, fantastic team of  leaders who have stepped up,” he said. “In an organization our size, the only way to move up is some people leave.”