WILMINGTON, Del. -- In an ornate ballroom in the posh Hotel duPont, Caterpillar Inc. Chairman Donald V. Fites said yesterday that his company had gotten calls from 47,000 people interested in filling the 12,600 jobs being struck by the United Auto Workers. Outside the hotel, about 100 striking and laid-off workers carried signs demanding: "Permanently replace Fites."
What is likely to be one of the most important labor battles of the coming decade moved from Caterpillar headquarters in Peoria, Ill., to this normally quiet bastion of American capitalism yesterday as Caterpillar held its annual shareholders meeting.
Although annual meetings are often dull, self-congratulatory affairs, this one threatened to disintegrate into a shouting match, as union members who owned stock were denied a chance to address for more than two minutes the approximately 200 shareholders gathered in the chandeliered room.
Indeed, by the end of the day, it became clear the two sides were still far apart from a resolution, as each side blamed the other one for the worsening 5-month-old strike.
"There is nothing on the table that couldn't be negotiated by two rational people," said Eli Lustgarten, a PaineWebber stock analyst who follows the company.
In Washington, 15 senators urged Labor Secretary Lynn Martin to try to persuade Caterpillar to drop its plans to replace 12,600 striking workers permanently and instead to allow federal mediation.
In their letter, the senators wrote, "Surely the experience at Eastern Airlines, Greyhound, the New York Daily News, and countless other, less publicized disputes, has shown that the introduction of permanent replacements is counterproductive."
But at a news conference after the stockholders meeting, Mr. Fites said of Ms. Martin's proposed involvement, "At this stage we don't think that would be the appropriate thing." Ms. Martin's office said late yesterday that she had no immediate plans to intervene.
The UAW doesn't want to give in because it is afraid that allowing Caterpillar to win concessions not already awarded to its U.S. competitors would spark a round of concessions, explained Frank Prezelski, who follows the industry for Rothschild Inc. in New York.
Next year, he noted, the UAW is scheduled to negotiate a new three-year agreement with General Motors Corp. "That's the real ballgame," Mr. Prezelski said.
The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.