NPB will open without service-time agreement

A long time ago, in a baseball-loving nation far, far away there were two leagues where the owners were not greedy extortionists bent on sucking all the short-term profits out of the game while leveraging their monopoly status to abscond with local taxpayers money and land.

In that nation, labor and management believed in peace, harmony, loyalty, and duty as stewards of the game. In that land, the owners never collude with the players union to hamstring amateurs’ bargaining power, and don’t have draft slot allotments or signing bonus pools, minor leaguers on starvation wages or labor strife.

I’d tell you that was Japan and the leagues were the Central and Pacific, but we all know that such a place only exists in fiction. While compared to MLB’s return-on-investment real-estate-development barons, Japan’s owners appear downright humanistic, and labor strife is (except for four dates erased from the 2004 season by Japan’s only players strike) is all but unheard of.

There were no pay cuts by owners, because the rule structure didn’t permit it, and on Monday, four days away from Opening Day on June 19, the players union said it will go into the season without a service-time agreement in place. Like the owners inability to cut salaries because of the law and their rules, the players’ inaction likely has nothing to do with altruism.

By going into the season without an agreement, the union is on the verge of giving owners an extra year of team control in addition to the seven-to-nine they already have. Essentially, players need 145 days on the first-team roster in order to qualify for one year of service time. But this year’s 120-game schedule will span just 151 days, meaning anyone deactivated for anything other than an injury, will not get a full year.

A typical 143-game season takes place over a span of 190 days, and the players want the rate for service time increased so that one game counts as more. They are also concerned about players making less than the first-team minimum of 16 million yen. These players get pro rated up to the minimum, but with fewer games, a player appearing in all 120 games might not come close to the minimum.

So the players are worried that if they go into the season without an agreement, the owners will, say thank you very much for your understanding then tell them say no one forced them to agree to terms favorable to the owners.

The players are going to do it, however, because they are unaccustomed to fighting for their rights. On one level there is a desire to play, and on another level, there’s a fear of appearing disloyal to the fans. But the real bottom line is that labor rights, although engraved in Japan’s constitution, are frequently ignored. Japanese court decisions are overwhelmingly pro-business, and the players have done little to maneuver themselves into a position of leverage.

The union fought the teams’ ability to control players’ image rights and lost, with the judges’ decision boiling down to, “Well the owners have a lot of expertise in selling things, so let’s just let them keep managing these things shall, we.” That decision was made despite the owners’ experience in managing licensing rights as waiting for people to throw them money and not always messing up the deal.

Labor negotiations in Japan make the MLB-MLBPA talks seem positively progress and engaging. More often they look like this:

Labor: “We’d like better raises, given all we’ve done.”

Management: “So would I. Our policy is not to give raises.”

This process is repeated forever until the labor negotiators, who are not paid for their time, get worn down by the sheer futility of it all.

What the union needs to do is attack some of the huge gaping holes in the Pro Baseball Agreement that governs Nippon Professional Baseball and exploit those for meaningful concessions, such as shortening the amount of service time needed or creating a real pension plan.

The real place to start would be Japan’s reserve clause, which a former GM said recently are essentially unconstitutional, with courts rejecting the claim of companies and pro sports teams that their contracts allow them to block the movement of entertainers and pro athletes.

“The reserve clause is inherently unconstitutional,” he said. “I have to think it will fall under the slightest challenge.”

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