Javier Morillo’s disillusionment with the powerful started before he can remember, when he was a toddler and the Army tried to send his Puerto Rican father to fight in Vietnam for a third time.
It hardened in adolescence, when he says a military doctor’s mistakes almost killed his mother, and the man was never held accountable. “I refused to live in a world where Mami did not see justice,” Morillo said, but “I do live in that world.”
Morillo has channeled his outrage into the fight for racial and economic justice. His battleground is Minnesota and, more often than not, his opponent is business.
Over the past 10 years, he has transformed a sleepy janitors’ union into a force, harnessed the shifting demographics of the Twin Cities to pursue an unapologetic progressive vision, reshaped Minneapolis politics and earned a long list of enemies.
He and his allies pushed a statewide minimum wage hike to passage, secured higher wages for workers at the airport, brought Target Corp. to the negotiating table with nonunion janitors and played a big role in getting Betsy Hodges elected mayor of Minneapolis.
Now he is at the center of some of the biggest and most divisive labor issues in the Twin Cities. By pushing for new rules on worker scheduling, sick leave and a higher minimum wage, Morillo wants to change the way business is conducted.
That stance is alarming many business leaders. “It borders on economic lunacy, what they’re trying to do,” said Mike Hickey, Minnesota director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
Yale-educated, bilingual, gay and Latino, Morillo is a self-styled “thug in pastels” — fast, relentless and attentive to the tediums of public policy and organizing people.
He has broken repeatedly with traditional unions and instead built a powerful alliance of advocacy groups, low-income workers and people of color that can turn out hundreds for protests and flood lawmakers’ offices with phone calls.
But with power comes dilemmas, and the 47-year-old risks disillusioning some of his closest allies, who’ve asked him whether his clout and connections are weakening his resolve.
“I get it,” Morillo said. “You have to keep yourself in check on these things. I’ve certainly seen that happen, and I don’t want to be that person.”
Morillo was the third of four children born into a military family stationed at the Panama Canal.
Days after his birth, his father started his second stint as an infantryman in Vietnam, which was already unusual. He survived, but when he returned the Army tried to send him back a third time. Only a wave of letters from wives of Latino servicemen and a campaign by the Congressional Black Caucus highlighting racial discrimination in the military saved his dad from a third tour of duty.
Later, Morillo said, a military doctor decided his mother’s urinary tract “had to be rested” to ward off recurring infections. The doctor didn’t ask if she’d had tuberculosis, which was the real problem, and inserted a catheter into her kidney, requiring her to carry a urine bag for 18 months. When he realized his mistake, he overprescribed drugs that legally blinded her.
The ordeal was horrific for the family, Morillo said, but they had no legal options and the military never admitted error.
His parents worked their way into the middle class and demanded A’s in school from their children. Morillo graduated from a “hyper-American” high school at a base just outside San Juan and got into Yale.
“I have grown to be comfortable with contradictions,” he said. “The military that almost killed my mother and held no one accountable for it is the same reason I have the education that I have and have the opportunities I’ve had. They’re of a piece.”
After Yale and graduate school, in 2002, Morillo was teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul, expecting to land a tenure-track post at Carleton College in Northfield. The Carleton job fell through, around the time another event ignited Morillo’s political activism: Sen. Paul Wellstone, a hero to progressives, died in a plane crash.
The next year, Morillo left academia and took an organizing job in the Service Employees International Union. Within 15 months, he was president of SEIU Local 26, which represents janitors in the Twin Cities.
Morillo concluded that the interests of his urban, mostly minority membership were distinct from those of unions in fields like construction, whose members are mostly white and paid much more. “My passion for the work is driven by racial and economic justice, and trade unionism is a tool to get there,” he said.
As Morillo gained a reputation for results, other union leaders watched with both wariness and admiration.
“Sometimes I’m not a fan of the academic — we like to see leaders come from the industry — but he has reinvigorated a local that was kind of muddled and they’ve grown it,” says Bernie Hesse, legislative chief of the United Food and Commercial Workers in St. Paul.
Confronting U.S. Bank
In early 2010, when Local 26 was trying to negotiate a new contract with employers, a member of the bargaining committee was about to be evicted. Her name was Rosalina Gomez, and she was underwater on her home.
She’d been foreclosed on by U.S. Bank, the trustee of her mortgage, and it turned out that she worked at the company’s headquarters, cleaning many offices, including that of Richard Davis, its chief executive.
Morillo’s penchant for theater kicked in — he recently wrote and starred in a one-man play at the Minnesota Fringe Festival — as did his willingness to offend.
Davis was set to receive an “Executive of the Year” award at a banquet at the downtown Hilton. The SEIU rented a conference room at the hotel on the same day and planned a protest where Gomez would confront Davis and hand him a letter asking for his help.
A last-second intervention by then-Mayor R.T. Rybak, who was on friendly terms with Davis and Morillo, prevented the confrontation.
But Morillo got what he wanted: U.S. Bank sat down with Gomez, held a conference call with the other financial institutions involved, and eventually forgave her loan down to what was then the value of the house. U.S. Bank confirmed this account of events.
“I just had this image of money floating away,” Morillo said.
Building a coalition
In 2011, the SEIU funded a campaign in 17 cities, called “Fight for a Fair Economy,” focused on corporate accountability and, specifically, banks. Morillo and other SEIU leaders used the money to fund a new nonprofit organization called Minnesotans for a Fair Economy.
It became the nerve center for an alliance of like-minded unions and nonprofit organizations, including ISAIAH, TakeAction Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), and later, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC).
The money funded new staff for each group; all the groups shared a team of researchers, organizers and communicators and they threw their energy into the same work.
In the five years since, the alliance has backed the most aggressive political activism in the Twin Cities.
They pressured Target Corp. to improve working conditions for nonunion janitors, defeated a voter ID referendum and used one-day strikes and traffic disruptions in downtown Minneapolis to call attention to janitors’ contract talks. They organized Occupy Homes MN, rallied around the election of Hodges in 2013, the push for scheduling and sick leave rules in both Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2015 and now the drive for a $15 minimum wage.
The alliance has no official top dog, and NOC and CTUL, in particular, are flourishing organizations with strong leaders.
“Javier is not this shadowy shot-caller,” said Anthony Newby, NOC’s director. “Power in the progressive world is diffused and is being more diffused every day.”
But Morillo remains the alliance’s most visible leader and serves as a strategist among the groups and for dozens of like-minded elected officials.
To Donna Cassutt, director of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, “Javier has been the person that has best articulated the vision and the need for this innovative work.”
A pragmatic streak
To business leaders, the vision and work are horrifying.
“This agenda runs the risk of making Minneapolis uniquely costly and complicated as a place to do business, and that is going to ultimately undermine the economic opportunity for folks that need it the most,” said Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, which represents downtown business interests.
Nonetheless, Morillo has developed working relationships with Republicans — his podcast “Wrong About Everything” is lighthearted and bipartisan — and business executives. Last Monday, while waiting in the lobby of a state government building for a meeting, Morillo vouched for Target’s general counsel in a call with SEIU organizers in Boston.
And he has a pragmatic streak. As a superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention this summer, Morillo supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, whose fiery progressivism appears on the surface to match his own. “I don’t play in national politics expecting to elect a savior,” he said.
Other actions have created tension with allies. His loyalty to Democratic House primary winner Ilhan Omar put him at odds with other SEIU leaders who endorsed Phyllis Kahn. He drifted publicly from NOC on the best way to secure a $15 minimum wage. And the last 12 months have strained his ties with Hodges, which is complicated by the fact that her chief of staff is Morillo’s partner, John Stiles.
When Hodges came under fire for the city’s handling of the Jamar Clark shooting, Morillo didn’t join in when many other organizations affiliated with Minnesotans for a Fair Economy — notably NOC — were protesting.
“I do not wish my partner harm,” Morillo said. “I wish him success. I wish Betsy success as mayor. That doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with one or both of them.”
Morillo and Hodges consider each other long-standing friends, but they insist he has no special power in her office because of his relationship with Stiles.
“I am guessing that he sometimes wishes he ran my office or my agenda, but he does not,” Hodges said. “And I do not run his either, I should be clear.”
But the criticism Morillo takes most seriously is the charge that any of his choices might preserve his power without advancing liberal causes.
“Governing is something that progressives have to figure out, and it’s really hard,” he said. “I think a movement includes lots of different groups and people, who have different roles, and the people who are at the table are never going to be the most radical. They have to be in relationship with those who are, I think, and we try to create a space so that what is negotiated at the table is as progressive as possible.”