By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The National Labor Relations Board is dropping its complaint that Boeing violated labor laws by deciding to open a plant in South Carolina, the board said Friday.
"The case is now closed," said Lafe Solomon, the NLRB's acting general counsel.
That outcome removes the threat, however remote, that a judge might order Boeing to close its $750 million North Charleston plant.
NLRB officials dropped the eight-month-old case after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers withdrew its complaint against Boeing. The union took that step after negotiating a new labor contract with the aircraft maker.
The case acquired symbolic significance far beyond a routine labor dispute. Republicans used it to bash what they view as the Obama administration's hostile views toward corporate America.
Solomon denied being pressured by Democrats to pursue the Boeing complaint and reaffirmed the NLRB's status as an independent agency. On its website, the NLRB says its mission is to "protect the rights of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union," for higher pay and better working conditions.
In the case against Boeing, NLRB officials alleged the company moved a second assembly line for the 787 Dreamliner from unionized Washington state to nonunion South Carolina to retaliate for past worker strikes in the Northwest.
The NLRB filed its complaint in April after finding evidence Boeing had indeed broken the law. The company denied the allegations, saying it hadn't "moved" an existing plant but rather had opened an entirely new plant in South Carolina.
The NLRB tried for a year to get the union and the aircraft maker to settle their differences.
A breakthrough came Wednesday, when the machinists and Boeing agreed to a four-year contract extension. As part of that deal, a different airliner -- the 737 MAX -- will be built in the Pacific Northwest.
"The (union's) charge was always about the loss of future jobs in the Seattle area," Solomon told reporters in a conference call. "This agreement has resolved that issue. There is job security in the Washington area. There is also job security in the North Charleston plant."
A settlement is "the outcome we've always preferred and one that is typical for our agency," Solomon said.
For months, Republicans blasted the NLRB as a "rogue" agency out to stifle business and hurt right-to-work states like South Carolina.
Solomon said the complaint "was never about the union or the NLRB telling Boeing where it could put its plants. This was a question for us of retaliation, and that remains the law. And if we were ever faced with a similar pattern, we might well issue a complaint."
In September, the GOP-controlled House passed a measure introduced by Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, that sought to bar the NLRB from asking any company to move operations for any reason. The Senate hasn't taken it up.
The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee held hearings on the Boeing case earlier this year. Though the complaint is being dropped, panel chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., vowed to continue the investigation and issued a fresh call for the NLRB to turn over all documents related to the case.
On Friday, South Carolina lawmakers expressed relief the North Charleston plant can continue operations, but they vowed to crack down on the NLRB.
"The governor believes this is a great win for Boeing and a great win for South Carolina," said Rob Godfrey, Gov. Nikki Haley's spokesman. He called the dropped complaint "frivolous."
Scott said he's glad the matter has been resolved "after months of unneeded stress" on the 1,100 workers at the Boeing plant in his district.
"The NLRB's insistence on putting Lowcountry jobs in jeopardy was a ridiculous stance to take from the beginning, and I am pleased they have finally dropped the matter," he said in a statement.
Other lawmakers were more aggressive in criticizing the NLRB and the machinists' union.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., urged Congress to investigate if the NLRB and the union worked together to squeeze Boeing.
"I have real concerns the NLRB complaint was used as a negotiating tool against Boeing," said Graham, who has blocked Senate consideration of nominees to the NLRB's board. "It would be completely unacceptable for the NLRB, which is supposed to be an independent arbiter, to be used and help in the union's bidding."
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is unlikely to order a probe. Democrats say Congress shouldn't interfere with the NLRB's independence.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, countered that the board's power must be curbed to prevent it from going after another company.
"There may be another state that finds itself in the same circumstance," said Gowdy, whose bill to dissolve the NLRB has stalled. "And when a quasi-judicial entity has lost every pretense of objectivity, there should be a legislative remedy."
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, said he didn't support the NLRB's complaint against Boeing, "nor did I support my colleagues' efforts to gain political points over the issue."