The Other Sector

I grew up in a household supported by my Dad’s GM paycheque. While there were lean times, particularly during labour strikes, we generally did pretty well, even in a family of seven with one wage earner. Thanks to GM, my Dad also has the benefit of a comfortable retirement and a generous health care plan.

This week GM made headlines as they announced negotiations had resulted in concessions that would save $22 per hour. The union was especially excited about having saved the pensions. One union negotiator said something to the effect that when someone from GM retired after 30 years of work, they wanted to be damn sure they would be treated with the respect they deserved. These concessions were critical as it now means GM is eligible for millions of dollars in government support.

While I’m happy for GM and I fully appreciate their contribution to our economy, I can’t help but think of all the people I know doing extraordinarily meaningful work that don’t even make $22 an hour to begin with. Additionally, 63% of them will retire without any employer sponsored pensions at all.

I’m talking about the 1.3 million Canadians who are employed by 69,000 community organizations. To put it into perspective, it’s important to understand this sector of non-profit and charitable organizations is eleven times larger than the entire automotive sector, and provides 6.8% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).

So no, these people are not making cars, they are instead working within a sector known for its resourcefulness, resilience and determination to make sure the hungry are fed, children and families have a roof over their head, and seniors and those with special needs are safe and healthy. These employees work shoulder to shoulder alongside volunteers in every single community in Canada to serve, train, advocate, mentor, protect, care, strengthen, develop, support, build, create, and entertain. They’re doing it within many areas of activity - social services, health, education and research, environment, development and housing, arts and culture, sports and recreation, advocacy and policy, international, religion, philanthropy and volunteerism.

They support us in our time of need, lobby for our rights, learn and teach new skills, build and maintain community halls and parks, look after our natural environment, plant gardens and trees, provide music, dance and put on shows, help us worship in prayer, offer advice and assistance, and facilitate our play and festivals.

Yes, cars are important, but those within the community sector are responsible for work that improves our quality of life through shared interactions, events, and celebrations, enables people from diverse backgrounds to join up and join in, provides opportunities for people to share responsibility, and ensures responsive and relevant services.

Today the sector responsible for this work is struggling with staff turnover that is the result of falling wages, as well as a growing gap in working conditions between the non-profit sector and the private and government sectors. These challenges are compounded by the unstable employment that is the result of less long term secure funding from government and foundations and more one-off project and contract funding. We’re already seeing a serious, negative impact on the capacity of these organizations to serve our communities.

The stories of these challenges don’t typically make headlines so it’s not a story many fully understand but we need to pay attention nonetheless as we’re heading toward conditions that will have grave consequences for our communities. For sure we need the kind of jobs that employers like GM provide. On the other hand, without the jobs and services provided by the non-profit sector, we may not have the kind of communities where we want to live. Ultimately, like many things in life, it’s all about balance. 

Posted on 05-24-09

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