WASHINGTON — The National Labor Relations Board on Friday dropped its high-profile challenge of Boeing's decision to open a nonunion aircraft manufacturing plant in South Carolina.
The board acted after the Machinists union approved a 4-year contract extension with Boeing this week and agreed to withdraw its charge that the company violated federal labor laws.
Lafe Solomon, the board's acting general counsel, said he had always preferred a settlement. The agency settles about 90 percent of its cases.
Under the deal, Boeing promised to build the new version of its 737 airplane in Washington state. The Machinists agreed to drop allegations that Boeing opened the South Carolina plant in retaliation for past union strikes.
Both Solomon and the agency had come under intense criticism from Republican lawmakers and South Carolina officials for bringing the case. Republicans and business groups claimed the board was setting a dangerous precedent by interfering with a legitimate business decision about where to locate workers.
Solomon said he was simply following the law and might do it again if faced with similar facts.
"This case was never about the union or the NLRB telling Boeing where it could put its plants," Solomon said in a conference call with reporters. "This was a question for us of retaliation, and that remains the law. If we were ever faced with a similar pattern, we might well issue a complaint."
President Barack Obama, in response to a question from a reporter about the case, said he was glad that people will be working.
Obama had declined to take sides in the dispute because the labor board is an independent agency. In comments this year, the president said companies need to have the freedom to relocate, though they must follow the law when doing so. Obama had urged Boeing and the union to work out their differences.
But the president and the board had come under withering attack from GOP White House hopefuls running in South Carolina, an important early primary state, who pointed out the agency was run by Obama's Democratic appointees. Those attacks continued Friday, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney taking the administration to task.
"Thanks to President Obama's appointees, the NLRB has become a rogue agency that tramples on the rights of American workers and businesses, injecting job-killing uncertainty into the economic climate," Romney said in a statement.
Solomon said the Boeing complaint was always about the loss of future jobs in the Seattle area. The new deal between Boeing and the union resolves that issue, because there is now job security in Seattle and job security at the North Charleston, S.C., plant, he said. Both sides say the agreement ushers in a new era of labor peace after years of acrimony.
Boeing spokesman Tim Neale said the company continues to believe the complaint was without merit and should have been dropped.
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"Boeing is grateful for the overwhelming support we received from across the country to vigorously contest this complaint and support the legitimate rights of businesses to make business decisions," Neale said.
In a tweet, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said it was hard for him to celebrate the dismissal of a case that should never have been brought.
"I have real concerns the NLRB complaint was used as a negotiating tool against Boeing," Graham said.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.