May 10. 2012 9:00PM

Ad creates political crossfire for Johnson Controls

By Steve Jagler

Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. suddenly finds itself in the middle of a squabble in the 2012 U.S. presidential race.

Brian Slagle, an autoworker at JCI's factory in Toledo, Ohio, is featured a new television commercial for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

In the new ad, Slagle says he was laid off and "scared to death" until Obama swooped in to save the American automotive industry.

While he drives on Interstate 475 in Toledo in the ad, Slagle gives Obama credit for having saved his job.

"The auto industry was crashing down. I was scared to death. I had a newborn baby, a wife, a house, and I got laid off. I wasn't sure what I was going to do," Slagle says in the ad. "Obama stuck his neck out for us, the auto industry. He wasn't going to let it just die, and I'm driving in this morning because of that, because of him."

The Republican National Committee is criticizing the ad and Johnson Controls. The GOP says Johnson Controls received $299 million from Obama's economic stimulus package. However, after receiving the money, the company built just one factory instead of two, the GOP says.

Then, in early April, the company laid off an unannounced number of workers to cut costs, after it reported weak sales results from January.

"While Obama may want you to forget he's been President for the past three and a half years, the fact that his policies have wreaked havoc on the middle class from high unemployment, high energy and higher education costs won't be forgotten. America deserves better than Obama's brand of hype and blame," national GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin attorney, said in a statement to the Toledo Blade.

However, Fraser Engerman, director of global media relations for Johnson Controls, told BizTimes Thursday that the company received a $299 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop lithium batteries for hybrid vehicles at its plant in Holland, Mich. Engerman said the company did not receive any stimulus funding for its factory near Toledo.

"Johnson Controls did not receive federal funding for the expansion of our automotive battery plant near Toledo, Ohio. This plant supplies the automakers directly and is affected by the volume swings of the OE (original equipment) schedules. Layoffs at our plant reflect the impact of reduced demand from our customers, as is common throughout the automotive supply chain," Engerman said in a statement.

Frank Benenati, an Obama campaign spokesman, responded to the RNC's comments about the ad with this quote to ABC News: "The simple fact is that one in eight Ohioans, including Brian, have jobs supported by the American auto industry that President Obama stepped in to save. Brian's story would have been much different if Mitt Romney had his way and let Detroit to go bankrupt. As much as Romney tries to Etch-a-Sketch his stance on the auto rescue, his position would have devastated the industry, including thousands of parts manufacturers throughout the supply chain, sacrificing Brian's job and countless others across Ohio and the Midwest."

Back in 2008 - at the height of the financial crisis – presumed 2012 Republican presidential nominate Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed for the New York Times opposing the Obama administration's plan to bail out the American auto industry.

In the op-ed, Romney wrote, "IF General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won't go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed. Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check."

The U.S. automotive industry has since recovered, and General Motors Corp. has regained its ranking as the largest automaker in the world. Romney's critics say the U.S. government had to intervene to save the industry, because no private capital was available to do so.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.