Around 4,500 Pima County employees will be represented by the Service Employees International Union after workers voted to approve the union by a 17-to-1 margin.

SEIU Local 5 has been organizing county workers for two years. As soon as the county officially recognizes the union, leaders will move to meet with administrators on a platform that includes improving wages, benefits, retention and the quality of work they provide, said chapter president Dave Mitchell.

More than 1,200 county workers voted in the election Tuesday and Wednesday. The result, 1,163 to 70 in favor of SEIU, brought applause and chants of "S-E-I-U" from labor organizers Thursday.

There were an additional 48 provisional ballots that were not resolved Thursday night. Most of them were cast by county workers whose names did not appear on an employee roster.

The union has limited power. It can't represent workers as a formal bargaining unit because that is prohibited by state law, and it doesn't have the right to strike. It also isn't an exclusive representative. Individuals and other groups can still meet with managers.

But in January, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved a "meet and confer" law, which means the supervisors agreed to meet with a union representing county workers to receive advice on topics including wages, benefits and workplace policies.

Before the new law, any union that could collect 200 signatures could represent county workers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees used to be their main union.

"We had no avenue before today to get to the table with management on any kind of regular basis. We didn't have any kind of a collective voice," Mitchell said. "Now we do."

He said the union wouldn't have been made official without the support of Chairman Richard Elías and the other county supervisors.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said, "I'm happy to work with them and talk about how we can improve services for taxpayers."

Pima County is Southern Arizona's seventh-largest employer, with 7,290 full-time equivalents, according to this year's Star 200 survey. Among those eligible for union membership are mechanics, animal-control officers, maintenance workers, health-care workers and social workers.

Nearly 700 county workers are dues-paying members of SEIU. They contribute 1.25 percent of their base pay to the union. That means a full-time worker who earns $10 an hour pays dues of $20 a month.

The membership cost is well worth having "a unified voice for things that are important to all county employees," said Jeff Summers, a library clerk who dyed his hair purple for the union campaign.

Summers said an active union could help workers get better wages and benefits, so spending a little now could really pay off.

The union's platform includes four major areas of interest:

● Wages that keep up with the market rates for public-service jobs, and benefit cost hikes that don't outpace raises.

● Acceptance of ideas for improving the quality of services.

● More training and resources to improve employee retention.

● A role in the political process by supporting candidates that support union causes.

"People want a chance to go to work, do a good job, get a little respect and contribute to the community," Mitchell said. "That's what we're doing with this union."

● Contact reporter Becky Pallack at 573-4224 or at bpallack@azstarnet.com.