An “outrage” and “oppressive” are words some representatives of California’s agricultural industry use to describe a new bill they say could lead to intimidation of workers by union groups.

The so-called card check bill, introduced just days into the state’s 2011 legislative session, eliminates secret ballot elections for union certification. A labor organization would be certified as the workers’ bargaining unit by submitting cards bearing the signatures of a majority of the employees.

“This version (of card check) is truly an attack on the farm employees’ rights,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League. “It’s undemocratic and probably un-American.”

Senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg, who represents a mostly urban district in and around Sacramento, wrote the bill.

“The bottom line from the senator’s perspective is the problem with current law is that there have been reports of intimidation of workers,” said Mark Hedlund, Steinberg’s press secretary.

The agriculture industry sees the bill differently.

“This will be a key issue for agriculture this legislative session,” said Dave Puglia, senior vice president for Western Growers, Irvine. “This will be a huge issue.”

Joe Herman, an attorney whose clients include Giumarra Bros. Fruit Co. Inc., Los Angeles, and Sun World International LLC, Bakersfield, Calif., said the most troubling aspect of the bill, SB 104, is that it eliminates employees’ rights to secret ballot elections.

“There is no other labor law in the United States that prohibits employees from the right to a secret ballot election on whether to be represented by a union,” Herman said.

Steinberg’s proposed law was something of a surprise to grower-shippers.

“It’s unfortunate that the Senator chose not to engage producers, growers and employers in a transparent process, if there was a problem that needed to be addressed,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. “The bill is a solution looking for a problem.”

The bill would establish steep penalties for grower-shippers, but appears to put few restrictions on labor organizers, grower-shippers said. A grower-shipper who fails to provide within 48 hours after receiving notification of an organizing effort detailed information, including the home addresses of farmworkers, may be fined up to $10,000 a day. Unfair labor practices could bring penalties of $20,000 per violation.

“These penalties could easily become ruinous for many growers and are clearly designed to discourage growers from campaigning against unionization,” Herman said.

The proposed law would be an invitation to forgery, he said, because a farmworker is required only to affix his or her signature to the card. Labor organizers are permitted to complete all other information.

Four card check bills cleared the California legislature during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, all of which he vetoed.

Concern among the agricultural industry over SB 104 may be too much, too soon, however.

“I’ve yet to see one of these card check bills emerge at the back end looking the same way it did when it was introduced,” Puglia said. “So there will be changes, but you can’t fix card check. There’s no way to avoid the implications of voiding the right to a secret ballot.”

Herman’s opinion of the bill is even stronger.

“It is so oppressive that it’s beyond belief,” he said. “The bill is an outrage.”

An unanswered question is where California’s new governor, Jerry Brown, stands on the issue.

“We have not heard from Gov. Brown on what he thinks (of SB 104),” Hedlund said.

California’s massive fiscal problems could play into the hands of the bill’s opponents.

“Gov. Brown probably won’t want to deal with it until the budget is resolved,” Bedwell said.

Should the bill become law, the fallout could reach well beyond California’s borders, Puglia said.

“If California were to enact a card check system, it creates a toe-hold for the national labor movement,” he said.