Road maintenance worker John Farrer didn't get a voice in Salt Lake County's decision to slash wages and benefits this year as part of elected officials' efforts to balance the budget amid treacherous economic times.

Farrer, along with the other 4,000 or so employees of the state's most populous county, took a 2.75 percent wage cut and will continue to miss out on the county's contribution to his 401(k) retirement account, a "temporary" policy change in place since last spring. And, he's also expecting to see a bigger slice of his paycheck go toward health insurance when rates go up this spring, an increase that's likely to be accompanied by reduced benefits.

Farrer's role as a silent observer to his dwindling compensation, however, has come to an end thanks to a county ordinance passed this summer that created a meet-and-confer apparatus for rank-and-file employees. The new system allows employee groups to elect a labor representative to negotiate with management on wages, benefits and working conditions. And Farrer's blue-collar unit, which comprises about 400 county workers, voted this month for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1004 to represent it.

"This is definitely a positive thing for workers, and that's why they voted it in," Farrer said. "With all that's happened, the wage cuts, benefits going down and insurance going up, we'll finally have a say in it."

Farrer has a long history with labor representation, having been a union member for nearly two decades at his previous jobs with Geneva Steel and Utah Power & Light. The decision to go with AFSCME, approved by more than 80 percent of employees in the unit who voted, is one he believes bodes well for workers.

"They know what they're doing, and can do a lot for us," he said of the union that boasts 1.6 million workers nationwide.

AFSCME has been advocating for Salt Lake City employees since the late '70s when they won a collective bargaining agreement under former Mayor Ted Wilson. While county employees do not have the weight of collective bargaining and binding arbitration under the meet-and-confer plan, it does provide a seat at the negotiating table.

Patty Rich, AFSCME Local 1004's executive director, said representation changes the government process in a way that is fundamentally better for employees.

"It's a win for workers and we're excited to be representing them," Rich said. "We have the experience, and experts, to work on behalf of Salt Lake County employees moving ahead."

Rich said the work to fill employee leadership positions is under way, and her group will be monitoring the anticipated insurance increases expected in April. Feedback from the employee unit will also be gathered to determine what issues are most important as initial contract work begins. The negotiation, or "confer" portion of the plan, is slated for next fall, when the county begins planning its 2011 budget.

Labor attorney and Salt Lake County Council Chairman Joe Hatch, who sponsored the meet-and-confer proposal, calls it a win-win.

"Obviously I've always been pro-labor and felt that employees, whether in the private sector or public sector, should have the option of representation," Hatch said. "These employees have chosen a well-respected organization that has done an incredible job in representing Salt Lake City over the years … and I'm sure they'll do the same for county employees."

Four other Salt Lake County employee units, comprising some 2,100 workers, are also eligible to opt for representation under the new plan.

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