In President Carter's war on inflation, the National Gypsum Co. officially is one of the bad guys.
Three months ago, the Dallas-based firm was blacklisted by the Council of Wage and Price Stability and barred from receiving major federal contracts. Last week, President Carter publicly fingered National Gypsum, along with Mobile Oil and four others, for raising prices higher than the council's formula allowed.
But at corporate headquarters the other day, public relations director James W. Thompson shrugged off the government's action.
"It's not going to affect our business," he said. "We're not really concerned. Maybe we'll get some sympathy."
Like mose of the 22 firms on the black list, National Gypsum, the nation's second largest gypsum manufacturer, rarely bids on government contracts. And it is relatively immune to public criticism because it sells to other businesses, not directly to consumers.
So does this mean the voluntary wage-price guideline program that President Carter launched in 1978 to combat inflation is an empty game of bluff?
Not at all, says the wage and price council's spokesman, Michael Gelb, who insists: "These companies are very, very concerned. They come in and sweat blood to prove they are in compliance."
Carter says the guidelines "have done a much better job than has been generally recognized." He declared on April 1 that the president of Sears & Roebuck Co. had reduced catalogue and store prices after Carter called him, threatening to hold a news conference "and let the American people know about this problem."
Mobile, on the other hand, was so piqued when Carter accused it of overcharging $45 million for oil, that it is placing large ads in 12 major newspapers, decrying "the continuation of political maneuvering at our company's expense."
In 2 1/2 years, about 250 lawyers and economists at the wage-price council regularly have reviewed data from 1,200 of the nation's largest companies -- all those with annual sales of more than $25 million. Last week Carter announced he will expand the council, hiring 400 more staffers to check on 2,900 companies.
The program, designed to curb the nation's rocketing inflation, has been criticized for allowing several large wage settlements that exceeded the guidelines, including contracts negotiated by the United Auto Workers and the United Rubber Workers. Several companies involved, including General Motors and the four largest tire manufacturers, managed to stay off the "list of companies not in compliance" by agreeing not to pass on their contract costs to consumers.
So far, of the 115 companies that have received "notices of probable noncompliance," the council's first warning, 62 cases have been resolved in the companies' favor. Eleven price violators and 11 wage violators have been listed and thus, in theory, barred from obtaining federal contracts over $5 million.
In fact, none of the 22 companies has been denied a contract. One, Amerada Hess, came close to losing a Defense Department contact for jet fuel, but was granted a waiver on national security grounds. The company has agreed to comply with the guidelines.
In an embarassing coincidence for the administration, Mobil was granted a $154 million jet fuel contract by the Defense Department last Tuesday, just hours after Carter tongue-lashed the company. Mobil, which maintains it did not violate the guidelines, had not yet been formally listed.
Ford Motor Co. which was listed two weeks ago for agreeing to the United Auto Workers contract, last week bid on a $30 million contract to sell trucks to the General Services Administration, according to Karen Hastie Williams, head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
"Unless Ford indicates it is willing to come into compliance, it might well be denied the contract,' she said.
A Ford spokesman said he was unaware of any truck contract. The company believes itself to be in compliance. It issued a statement declaring: "We do not expect the listing to have a significant impact on the company.
Ford's aerospace subsidiary, which does have large government contracts, is not affected.
When Edward M. Kennedy began criticizing the voluntary wage-price guidelines program of the campaign trail last winter administration officials stepped up public jawboning. Council Chairman Alfred E. Kahn went on television, for instance, to criticize Church's Fried Chicken, saying the company was "unreasonable . . . to pocket" the profits from lower wholesale chicken prices.
"I want Church's customers to understand exactly what happened," Kahn said.
But the customers at Church's 950 restaurants in 25 states don't seem to be complaining.
"We had bad publicity," said William J. Storm, vice president of the Texas-based firm. "But we do not think it has affected our sales.
"We know we've got the lowest prices in the industry. But they've got to pick on somebody. Mr. Kahn does that kind of thing when he feels he needs some publicity. I'm not sure the American public really pays attention."
Like National Gypsum, which says it did not violate the guidelines, Church's has no major government contracts to lose. So the firm, which sells $350 million in food a year, did not bother to appeal the council's ruling.
The calculations the council makes to determine who has violated price guidelines are so complex that violations, in cases such as National Gypsum's and others, are a matter of interpretation.
"It's called guideline math," Gelb said.
At Ideal Basic Industries Inc., a Denver cement firm cited last week by Carter, spokesman Harry Lazier denied any violations. The blacklisting "had a very minor effect, if any," he said, adding: "I gave it relatively little thought. We've been doing business as usual."
Another cement firm, Gifford-Hill & Co. of Dallas, admits it was "slightly" out of compliance last year.
"We started out trying to comply and spent a lot of money and man-hours to determine to what extent we could pass through our costs," said President Tom B. Howard.
"But we guessed wrong at the end of the year. Then we retained a consultant to see if we were keeping our records correctly. He said we were." c
Now Howard is throughly discouraged with the program. He said, "I don't think it's been effective or had any credibility, once the administration started playing games with the large unions."
The fact that the council has listed his company, he added, "has not affected our business."
Other companies, while they cannot cite any practical effort of being named as wage-price guidelines violators, are more public-relations conscious.
"It's not the kind of publicity anyone would like," said A. J. Morris of Crown Central Petroleum, a Baltimore company cited by Carter. "We're not convinced we are in violation."
Charles A. Meyer, vice president of Sears -- which was not listed by the council -- confirmed that the company reduced prices after a call from Carter. cHe explained: "One would like to be with the American effort, or at least be perceived as such. And none of us want mandatory [wage and price] controls."
Carter's attack on Mobil, said company spokesman John Flint, could "damage our credibility . . . The public is angry about gas shortages and the company recognizes that. We want to be understood, even though we know we may not be liked."