It’s nine o’clock on a grey morning in early December and Casandra Robinson is prepping for yet another long day of holiday cheer.
"Yesterday we started putting together the food hampers for the locals up in Bonfield and Pembroke," she explains. Today, she’ll be stuffing holiday gift cards.
It’s all part of being the organizer and founder of Operation Christmas Cheer, an initiative started by Robinson in 2004 that brings a little holiday spirit to workers that are on the picket lines during the month of December.
Robinson takes leave of her full-time job almost all of November and December to oversee the donation and distribution of Christmas food hampers, toys and grocery gift cards to striking or locked out workers across Ontario, inspired in part by a story she first heard nine years ago while sitting in a Ottawa district labour council meeting.
"We had a sister who addressed the delegates who explained that her local, CEP 102 up in Pembroke, was in extreme hardship," says Robinson. "They had 12 members who had been locked out and it was a really bad situation."
Robinson was moved. She had helped her mother distribute Christmas hampers for disadvantaged families while growing up in Winnipeg and knew how important the gesture was for people who couldn’t afford a traditional holiday. She also knew that strike funds, while important for keeping the locals afloat, didn’t necessarily provide enough strike pay for workers on the picket lines to be able to provide basic necessities for their families, much less presents and multiple course dinners.
She decided to put out a call for assistance, and with donations from her employer and from organized labour she was able to raise enough to provide full dinners, along with toys, for all 12 workers plus additional grocery store gift cards for 15 workers who were locked out of their workplace in Dryden, Ontario.
"I thought it was a one time thing," she says. "But then I was contacted by a whole bunch of United Steelworker (USW) locals in Hawkesbury where effectively the whole city was shut down because three USW locals were on strike."
Since then, Robinson believes that Operation Christmas Cheer has been out to every picket line happening in December in Ontario since 2007.
Ensuring that workers are not forgotten over the holidays is what motivates her to run Operation Christmas Cheer year after year.
"In labour, we hear about the big locals on strike," she notes. But small locals, some that have been walking the line for months if not years, no longer drive media attention.
"People have forgotten about USW 1-1000 in Pembroke, where this is their fourth Christmas on the picket line," she says. For the fourth year, Robinson and her crew will head to Pembroke and play Santa for the day. "That’s what we do," she says. "We make sure that nobody is forgotten."
The New Year has Robinson looking beyond the borders of Ontario. She hopes that Operation Christmas Cheer can become a Canada wide initiative and that the organization’s structure will become more formalized as they try to put a Board of Directors in place.
But she’ll still be there, stuffing hampers and handing toys out on the picket lines every year.
"Anyone who knows me knows I'm kind of like a dog with a bone," she laughs. "I don't give up and I never, ever make apologies for doing everything that I can."