Independent service station dealers from across the country -- many of whom had never demonstrated before -- hoisted picket signs, joined a tow truck motorcade through downtown Washington and rallied at the steps of the U.S. Capitol yesterday to protest new gasoline pricing rules.
About 200 dealers picketed the White House while 148 others joined a tow truck motorcade led by a hearse bearing the sign, "Full Service Dealer is Dead, Killed by DOE" (Department of Energy).
"We need to let the public know that the oil companies could not have written a better last will and testament than this package that DOE gave us," said Bill Brooks, a vice president of the National Congress of Petroleum Retailers, the sponsors of the one-day protest.
Brooks and other protest leaders said the service station owners are upset about Department of Energy regulations, effective yesterday, that put a 15.4 cents per gallon ceiling on the amount of gross profit that the independent dealers can make.
Risque Harper, a spokesman for the retailers organization, said dealers are upset also about competition from stations owned by oil companies, which can charge lower prices due to higher volume. Harper said that they are also angry that they can no longer pass rent increases on the customers through higher pump prices.
The dealers in yesterday's protest represent about 135,000 stations nationwide. Those dealers own their stations and operate than either under the name of a major oil company or a private brand.
An additional 40,000 stations are owned and opperated directly by the oil companies.
"This new regulation is going to mean the end of the mom and pop dealers," said Brooks, owner of Bill's Gulf station at 5120 Georgia Ave. NW. "DOE put a ceiling on gross profits at a time when operating costs are increasing and cutting into net profits. We aren't going to be able to survive."
"The dealers are frustrated," said Vic Rasheed. "If DOE does not do something to give the dealers more in the way of profits, there could be a shutdown [of service stations] across the country by the end of the month." Rasheed is executive director of the Greater Washington/Maryland Service Station Association.
Dealers said they were incensed meat oil companies are allowed to pass on operating cost increases to customers and still maintain a high profit, while the independent dealers are not.
"It's not that we aren't making any profit," said Angelo Licare, a Texaco dealer from Greenwich, Conn. "But under the ceiling, we are not able to improve ourselves each year because the profit is shrinking and costs keep climbing."
As he walked the picket line in front of the White House yesterday, Butch Taylor, 38, an Exxon Dealer from Greenville, S.C., said he is not suffering directly from the gasoline shortage, but his business is.
Last year, Taylor said, he drew about $18,000 in salary from his station and posted a $27,000 net profit on top of that for a total of $45,000.
This year, Taylor expects to draw the same salary, but his station's profits may be down be 25 percent, he said.
Exxon officials, however, told him last week that his profitability is actually up, because, instead of operating his station 100 hours per week, he now operates at 65 hours per week, a 35 percent reduction.
So, if he works 35 percent fewer hours and makes 25 percent less profit, he is actually 10 percent ahead of the game, he was told.
Obviously, Taylor does not believe that his economic position in life has improved by 10 percent although he acknowledges that for every hour his station is open now, he is making more money than he did this time last year.
"It hurts the hell out of me to restrict my business like that . . . [and] and I'm still not making what I should be making," Taylor said.
Most important to Toylor are his total net profit figures for the year. In the first six months of 1978, his net profrt was $17,000, he said. And, for the same period in 1979, the figure dropped to $10,600.
The reason his profits are off is that Exxon has reduced its level of supply to all dealers -- just as all other major oil companies have. Taylor has raised his profit margin to 16.7 cents a gallon for regular gas and while that is more profit than he has ever made, it is not enough to make up for the loss in supplies from Exxon due to the shortage. Indeed, Taylor said he may not roll back his prices to meet the new 15.4 cents maximum dealer profit.
"I admit that I'm in violation by [almost] two cents but I don't think that's price grouping and there're [energy officials] going to have to put my a- in jail," said Taylor.
"What the government is doing, letting the oil companies get these big profits while restricting the little guy, hurts us," said Licare, the Texaco dealer from Greenwich. "If you have the desire to work hard, it seems like a waste of time. It distorts the American dream."
Licare, 45, married and the father of an 11 year-old girl, said he has struggled for 20 years in the business to work for the day when he could open his own station. That happened eight years ago. One of 10 children of parents who emigrated from Italy, he said he was raised on the ethic that if you worked hard, there was no limit to your success.
"I worked hard to build ny business and I don't mind working hard. But, what's the sense when you can't mark enough money to improve," he said. "I never picketed before. I would have never believed that our government would allow what they are doing to us now. What they are telling us is that if you work hard for yourself and family, to improve yourself, the government is going to pull the ladder right out from under you."
Bill Krannich, a Standard oil company dealer from St. Paul, Minn., wore his work uniform and carried a sign denouncing price increases for oil companies at a time when a ceiling is placed on dealers.
"I feel uneasy about carrying this sign," he said. "I have never been to the White House before, and here I am picketing . . . This is still the greatest country in the world to live in, but I have got to protect my rights."