Pro-Palestinian protesters angry with Caterpillar Inc for selling tractors to Israel picketed the company's annual meeting on Wednesday as shareholders rejected a proposal that would have required Caterpillar to publish a report on its foreign military sales.
Chanting, "Take responsibility and do the right thing," the protesters claimed tractors sold to the Israeli Defense Force have been used to demolish more than 12,000 Palestinian homes in recent years.
Caterpillar, which has been targeted by activists for five years, continues to say that it cannot control how its equipment is used. Sales are made through the U.S. government under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program.
The issue came to a head this year when the activists submitted a proposal that would have forced the company to provide a report on all such sales. Only 3.3 percent of Caterpillar's shareholders supported the proposal, which the company opposed.
The maker of heavy construction and mining equipment said such sales bought in just $3.7 million in 2007, or 0.008 percent of its overall sales and revenue, and that spending money to complete such a report would be an "inappropriate" use of its resources.
During the meeting, Caterpillar reiterated its financial forecast for 2008, saying it expects 2008 earnings per share of $5.91, up from $5.37 last year, on sales of $48 billion, up from $45 billion in 2007.
Last year, Caterpillar moved its annual meeting to the small town of St. Charles, Illinois, in part to avoid the protests that have marred the meeting in recent years. Even so, protesters showed up, and the company adjourned 30 minutes earlier than planned.
This year, some protesters carried placards bearing a picture of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist killed in 2003 by Israeli soldiers driving a Caterpillar bulldozer while she was protesting a home demolition in the Gaza Strip.
Corrie's parents are suing Caterpillar over her death.
During Wednesday's 90-minute meeting, which was disrupted three times by protesters, the company's chief executive officer Jim Owens stood by Caterpillar's forecast that 2010 sales and revenue would approach the $60 billion mark and that 2010 earnings per share would be between $8 and $10 a share.
"We're just trying to hold Caterpillar, among other companies, accountable," said Suha Dabbouseh, national organizer for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
"We think that corporations should be held accountable ... It's not good enough to just sell your products and say we don't know any better because now they do know better."
Wednesday's meeting also drew pro-Israeli counter demonstrators, including 22-year-old Josef Rabin, a political science student at Northeastern University who has served in the Israeli Defense Force. He defended the demolitions by the Israelis, saying the razed homes "had been occupied by terrorists."
Caterpillar shareholders also rejected a separate proposal that would have amended the company's bylaws and forced directors standing in uncontested elections to win a majority of the votes cast, not just a plurality as currently required.
They approved a nonbinding proposal that the company begin holding annual elections for all its directors, abandoning the current system of three-year staggered terms. Caterpillar opposed the resolution, saying the current structure provides stability.
Editing by Toni Reinhold
© 2008 Reuters