Japanese professional baseball players have voted overwhelmingly for the right to strike as part of a bid to maintain the two-league system and prevent ballclub mergers, a source close to the matter said Thursday.

Ninety-eight percent of about 750 members of the players’ union, the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association, reportedly voted for strike rights. Fewer than 10 members opposed striking and about 10 ballots were deemed invalid.

The source disclosed the voting results after attending a meeting Thursday morning between Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, who heads the association, and Kiyoshi Sasamori, president of the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

At the meeting, Rengo stated its support for the association and Sasamori gave advice on how to set up a strike as well as labor-management negotiation strategies.

The association asked Rengo for help with such activities as circulating petitions.

Furuta said that whether players strike will depend on how management responds in negotiations, although preparations for a strike are under way.

Sasamori told a news conference after the meeting, “I advised them that going on strike should be a last resort and not set in the beginning.”

Later in the day, Toru Matsubara, head of the players’ association secretariat, notified the baseball commissioner’s office of the vote results.

“I did not tell them that (the players) would strike, but that they have established the right to strike,” he told reporters.

“The next course of action will be decided after the players taking part in the Olympics return,” he added.

In July, Sasamori expressed full support for the association, criticizing remarks by Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe.

Watanabe had asserted that players have no say in club merger talks and a consolidation of the Central and Pacific leagues, saying “They are no more than just baseball players.”

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