Javier Morillo, the forceful and often contentious president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 and an influential figure in state Democratic politics, is stepping down in June after 14 years with the union.
Morillo will join the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He will remain in Minnesota, where he plans to interview workers, research and write a book.
“The basic thrust of the project is to tell stories of organizing work that we’ve done over the years, victories and challenges, with an eye toward theorizing new forms of worker organization,” Morillo said Wednesday. “I think a lot of the lessons we’ve learned here are applicable … to a broader audience.”
Iris Altamirano will take over the union, which chiefly represents building service workers and security guards and leads many workers’ rights and social justice initiatives.
Morillo, a Puerto Rican military kid who was born at the Panama Canal and graduated from Yale University, transformed what had been a sleepy janitors’ union into a political force at the center of the progressive movement in one of America’s bluest cities.
Morillo and his allies pushed for new rules on worker scheduling, sick leave and a higher minimum wage, 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. Morillo has often been at the center of it all, shouting into a bullhorn or arguing vigorously on social media.
He threw his weight behind the election of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her unsuccessful bid for re-election. He supported Gov. Tim Walz’s successful campaign. He also publicly supported Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.
In a sign of his influence, the union’s announcement of the leadership change carried statements praising Morillo from many of the state’s top Democrats, including Walz.
“One of the things I most appreciate about Javier is his willingness to engage meaningfully with Minnesotans from many different backgrounds. He understands that building a progressive future means listening carefully to each other,” Walz said in the statement.
Altamirano, a Cornell University graduate and the daughter of an immigrant janitor, has worked for the SEIU Local 26 for more than four years, working in every department. She will be the local’s first Latina president.
“Over my time working here, I have seen our union grow, both in staff and in membership, but what I have most seen are great people building strength with incredible determination to win the fights we need to win for families,” Altamirano said in the statement.
“Javier is leaving big shoes to fill, but come June I am ready to continue and build on the amazing work he has done for the last 14 years,” she added.
Morillo, who wrote and starred in a one-man play at the Minnesota Fringe Festival three years ago, said he also hopes to develop a storytelling project at the Strike Theater, a venue at the union headquarters in northeast Minneapolis.
“Telling a story that people connect to is so key to anything. I would like to focus on creating more storytellers and more compelling storytellers among our members and people who are actually living with the inequities in our society,” Morillo said. “I’ll be around here, but the leadership of the local will be in the hands of a new generation.”