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Obituaries

Harry Kubo, 84; farm leader was defender of private property rights

December 16, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Harry Kubo, the founder of the influential Nisei Farmers League, who was known for his tenacity and passionate defense of private property rights during battles in the 1970s with the United Farm Workers union, died Dec. 8 at his home in Parlier, Calif. He was 84.

The cause was cancer, said his son, Larry.

Kubo organized the Nisei Farmers League in 1971 and was its outspoken leader for 25 years. At its height, the league had 1,500 members of various ethnicities and played a prominent role in farm labor conflicts in Central California and statewide. It is credited with helping break the White River Farms strike in the Delano-Poplar area in 1972.

A fruit grower, Kubo became familiar to many California voters during the 1976 campaign to defeat Proposition 14, a UFW-backed measure that would have strengthened the union's organizing ability.

The campaign featured Kubo's picture, along with his personal statement in which he likened the Nisei farmers' plight to their persecution by the federal government during World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. Kubo and his family were forced to leave the land they farmed and spent four years at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in remote Modoc County.

"I suspect his internment during those years in World War II was one of the primary reasons that Harry became a leader for farmers throughout the state," said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who knew Kubo for many years.

Kubo faced UFW founder Cesar Chavez in several debates in the 1970s. Marc Grossman, a UFW spokesman who was Chavez's personal aide during that time, remembered that Chavez was puzzled by Kubo, whose experiences with the hardships and discrimination of a migrant worker's life were similar to his own.

Chavez apparently did not understand how deeply Kubo had been affected by his wartime internment.

"When he came back from the camp and started pulling together his farm with his family, he decided, 'We're not going to let this ever happen to our farmers, to my friends, again,' " said Manuel Cunha, who succeeded Kubo as president of the Nisei Farmers League. When the UFW began to organize in his area, "He said, 'We're not going to let the union destroy our farms. We already have been through that. We have to protect what we worked for, what our parents worked for.' It had a very big influence on what he wanted to do in his life."

Kubo was born in Loomis, about 26 miles north of Sacramento. The oldest of six children, he began working on farms when he was 8. His father, who came to the U.S. from Japan in 1906, was a migrant farmworker for years.

He eventually saved enough money to rent farmland and become a grower but was prohibited by law from owning land because he was Japanese. He often told his children that before he died, he wanted "to step on property I can call my own."

When the U.S. entered World War II and the evacuation of people of Japanese heritage on the West Coast was ordered, the Kubos had to abandon the rented land they were farming near Loomis. Harry Kubo was 19 and a student at what was then called Placer Junior College when he and his family went to the Tule Lake camp.

In the camp he became a teacher, leading classes on bookkeeping. The young man who had been so shy that he would cross the street to avoid speaking to a person of the opposite sex "opened up" in the cramped camp environment. He not only found his voice but a desire to prevent the loss of liberty and rights that he and his family experienced during the war.

"In 1942," he told the Fresno Bee in a 1996 interview, "our property rights were denied. Private property is very valuable. It's the most valuable right we have."

In 1949, his father's dream of owning his own farm was realized in Parlier, a small town about 20 miles south of Fresno. Kubo was running the farm when the UFW began flexing its muscle in the late 1960s.

Several farms owned by Japanese Americans were vandalized and targeted for unionizing and picketing. Kubo responded by mobilizing some of his fellow Nisei -- second-generation Japanese Americans -- into the Nisei Farmers League. It had 100 members the first year; by 1976, according to the book "Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present," it had grown to 1,500 members, of whom only 40% were of Japanese descent. Most of the farmers owned no more than about 50 acres of land.

During the 1970s, the league organized picket patrols to support growers whose farms were being picketed by the union and night patrols to guard against vandalism. It played a crucial role in breaking the UFW strike at the White River Farms by supplying and protecting workers who brought in the harvest.

Four years later the league became a principal player in the drive to defeat Proposition 14, which would have increased funding for the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, enacted by the Legislature to protect the bargaining rights of farmworkers.

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