On Monday, the Carlyle Group, a Washington private-equity manager, announced plans to run the refinery as a joint venture with Sunoco Inc. The new owners, Wilson marveled, "are talking about how they can put more money into it, and make money."
In fact, in no small measure, it's because of the leaders of Wilson's union that Wilson can go to work on Thursday. The union created a public advocacy strategy that built support among politicians and confidence among investors. In the end, two of the region's three refineries slated for closure did not close.
"It gets emotional," Wilson said, his voice catching.
On Monday, Wilson and other members voted on a new contract.
The three-year contract between the new owners and United Steelworkers Local 10-1 follows the national oil-industry bargaining pattern, with a raise of 2.5 percent the first year, and 3 percent in each of the second and third years, with bonuses dependent on business conditions.
The union agreed to switch from a defined-benefit pension plan to a 401(k) plan and to permit some union jobs to be performed by outside contractors, with some protections for workers affected by the outsourcing. Some double-time shifts will now be paid at time and a half.
Besides voting, members showed up at the union's modest hall in Linwood, Delaware County, simply to bask: bask in the relief of saving hundreds of jobs that had seemed lost six months before, bask in visits from the political dignitaries — Gov. Corbett, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan. Spirits were high as they grabbed doughnuts and coffee, or a sandwich, and traded jokes about what a great night it would be at Lefty's Irish Pub and Restaurant at Marcus Hook, the place for the after-vote after party.
"All this came about because our members refused to let these plants die," United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard said in a morning conference call.
When plans were announced in September to close ConocoPhillips' refinery in Trainer and the Sunoco refineries in Philadelphia and Marcus Hook, the leaders of the three steelworkers' unions became nearly inseparable allies in the fight to save some jobs, even if they could not save all of them.
They were Jim Savage, the outspoken, gregarious leader of Local 10-1, the Sunoco Philadelphia union; Denis Stephano, head of Local 10-234, representing ConocoPhillips' workforce now back at work for the refinery's new owners, Delta Airlines; and David Miller, head of Local 10-901, representing Sunoco workers in Marcus Hook.
"Obviously the union leadership was there for its members," Gov. Corbett said as he left the union hall on Monday. "They kept Congressman Bob Brady engaged," and, he said, helped to propel a lot of moving parts that operated behind the scenes.
The Pittsburgh-based union took a multipronged approach.
First, it made use of its considerable economic and market research capabilities, using the knowledge it had gained in negotiating contracts nationwide to push politicians to get the federal Energy Information Agency to study the economic effects of closing the Northeast refineries. That study, in turn, pushed the White House to get involved, Gerard said.
Second, the union capitalized on its relationship with Carlyle. "We believe they can make this a modern, efficient refinery," Gerard said. The union dispatched Tom Conway, a top union vice president and a familiar face to Carlyle executives.
Third, the union enlisted the members, including Wilson, who serves on Local 10-1's grievance committee.
For Wilson, the battle to save the refinery jobs was a life-altering experience.
Most days, Wilson's work involves repairing pumps, turbines and compressors using precise calculations and deep knowledge of metal strengths and properties.
What it does not involve is understanding hedge funds, or how energy futures work, or the nation's refining capacity, or what difference it would make to corporate profits if the crude oil comes from North Dakota or the North Sea. "I got a great education in economics," he said.
The information helped Wilson and other union members when they went door-to-door to marshal support for their efforts, and when they went office-to-office in Washington to lobby politicians.
"The activist part of it was eye-opening," Wilson said. "We put 1,000 people out on the street." He had never met any politicians until he, armed with his new knowledge, went to Washington and met U.S. Reps. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) and Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.).
Meehan said the union leaders quickly got savvy with their message. If in the past they had complained about working conditions or safety issues at the plant, they toned down that rhetoric.
"The mantra could have been negative and divisive," he said outside the union hall. "But they stayed together on the same page with everyone. You're never going to sell the house if you are screaming about what's wrong in the basement and how bad the neighborhood is.
“There was absolutely no doubt to their commitment in working this deal," he said. "They said they were not going to be the ones to stand in the way of a deal."
Wilson's take: "The lesson is to never give up. You have to knock on the right doors and get the right people in the room and things will happen."
Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, email@example.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her Jobbing blog at www.philly.com/jobbing