They’ve helped raise the minimum wage.
They passed a ballot initiative giving employees up to 40 hours of sick time per year.
And now they’re engaged in their biggest battle yet: A 2018 constitutional amendment referendum — given a preliminary green light by the Legislature this year— to raise taxes on millionaires and funnel that cash to transportation and education.
At a time when a no-new-taxes Republican governor is ascendant and the state Democratic Party is in a defensive crouch, Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community, faith, and organized labor groups, is at the vanguard of the liberal fight against economic inequality.
Opponents frame Raise Up as a front group for public-sector unions — from teachers to MBTA drivers — trying to sneakily squeeze more money out of taxpayers for profligate Beacon Hill spending under the guise of forcing the rich to pay their fair share.
But the leaders of Raise Up, founded in 2013, reject that argument and say Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest places on earth, cannot truly thrive when the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else is so vast.
Harris Gruman, a top union official and a co-chairman of the group, said Massachusetts is in the midst of moral crisis: a crisis of work, communities, and the faith we have in ourselves as a society.
“Raise Up is really about rebuilding all of that, bringing that all together, becoming Norway, in a sense — using our resources,” said Gruman.
Gruman, a 57-year-old Somerville resident and state political director for the Service Employees International Union, helps run Raise Up along with a faith-based organizer and a social justice activist. They represent scores of groups, from UU Mass Action, which organizes Unitarian Universalists on social justice issues, to the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a union.
Lew Finfer, 65, a longtime Dorchester resident and another co-chairman, has been a community organizer since 1970. For the last quarter-century, Finfer, who is the director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, has been engaged in faith-based organizing, bringing together church, synagogue, and other religious groups in social justice efforts.
Deb Fastino, 51, who lives in Fall River, is a co-chairwoman of Raise Up. She’s also the executive director of Coalition for Social Justice, which engages in advocacy and political action, and a board member of Family Values at Work, a national network pressing for paid leave laws.
Raise Up’s goal, they said in interviews with the Globe, is threefold: Raising wages and benefits for the poorest workers; more heavily taxing the very rich; and using that new money to improve education and transportation.
By gathering enough signatures for a ballot push, Raise Up helped pressure the Legislature to pass an incremental minimum wage hike in 2014; the floor will be lifted to $11 per hour in January.
And it backed a successful 2014 ballot initiative to mandate that workers be able to earn and use up to 40 hours of sick time annually — time that is paid if their employer has 11 or more employees.
The group spent more than $1.3 million during that campaign, primarily funded by unions, such as those affiliated with SEIU and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, state records show.
Raise Up’s new initiative would impose an additional tax of 4 percent on annual taxable income in excess of $1 million starting in 2019. (Currently, Massachusetts’ income tax rate is 5.1 percent for all income levels.) And the new tax would be tied to inflation, so the levy would continue to apply only to very wealthy people.
The state Department of Revenue has estimated if there is not an exodus of wealthy people from Massachusetts, the tax measure could bring in as much as $2.2 billion annually, a massive new influx of cash.
Advocates see their push through the lens of income inequality, which is particularly pronounced in the state. Boston, a recent Brookings Institution analysis found, has the highest rate of income inequality among the country’s biggest cities.
In the group’s private polling and focus groups, Gruman said, Massachusetts residents were crystal clear that they support increasing taxes on the very rich as long as the new money is dedicated to the areas that matter to them. They told interviewers that having a reliable way to get to work and being able to get a college education without lifelong debt are key to their economic security.
Raise Up’s efforts are supported by strong majorities of residents in opinion surveys. And backers point to the 157,000 signatures collected in the effort to put the millionaires’ tax on the ballot: One third collected by unions, one-third by religious groups, one third by community organizations, and none by paid canvassers.
However, Massachusetts voters have previously rejected five proposals to change the Constitution to allow for a graduated state income tax: 1962, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1994.
And there are several simmering disputes about the millionaires’ tax effort. Opponents say the Legislature, rather than being mandated to actually spend the money from the new tax on transportation and education, could spend it on anything.
And they say that Raise Up is effectively a front group for Democratic Party-aligned public sector unions that stand to benefit from a massive infusion of new tax dollars.
Chip Faulkner, the communications director for Citizens for Limited Taxation, which vociferously opposes the millionaires’ tax, said he sees Raise Up as a new iteration of his low-tax group’s longtime foes: The Massachusetts Teachers Association.
“They go way back, the MTA. They were our main opposition in 1980,” he said, referring to the fight over Proposition 2½, which limits property taxes. Faulkner added that he sees the group’s top officials, including MTA president Barbara Madeloni, as actually leading the millionaires’ tax charge.
“It’s the same old group with a different face. They just changed their masks,” he said. “But we expected that.”
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which spent millions of dollars trying to defeat Republican Governor Charlie Baker in his 2014 race, has donated $75,000 and more than $389,000 worth of staff time to the millionaires’ tax effort, state campaign records show.
But Madeloni strongly rejected the supposition that Raise Up is a front group for teachers and other public sector unions, and said opponents are trying to deny and undermine the people-driven power of the wide-ranging coalition.
“We work arm-and-arm with community organizations, faith organizations. One of the beautiful things about it is that it is all of us working together,” Madeloni said. “It is what democracy looks like.”
And Fastino, the Raise Up co-chairwoman, said she believes advocates have finally framed a tax question in a way that will be victorious.
“I think the process of thinking through how to do it, make it more clear, tying it to something people care about — transportation and education,” she said. “I think that we have a winner this time.”
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.