Boeing now looks forward as NLRB suit halted

National Labor Relations Board lawyer Lafe Solomon

The National Labor Relations Board withdrew its controversial case against Boeing on Friday, ending the nearly eight-month legal battle over the airframer's nonunion North Charleston plant.

Expressions of relief poured in from all quarters, but there was already talk of what comes next.

Boeing, with guaranteed labor peace through fall 2016, has an across-the-board production ramp-up in progress. Workers in North Charleston -- who are not party to the union agreement that brought an end to the labor dispute -- are in the home stretch of delivering their first 787 Dreamliner.

And Republican politicians continued to press for further investigation and reform of the Democrat- controlled NLRB.

Friday's result was previewed Nov. 30 when Boeing and its largest union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, announced that they had reached a tentative deal. And it became more likely Wednesday night after workers in Washington, Oregon and Kansas approved a four-year contract extension with Boeing.

But it didn't become official until Friday morning, when the NLRB's regional director in Seattle approved the union's request to withdraw the charge.

"I am pleased that the collective bargaining process has succeeded and that the parties have begun a promising new chapter in their relationship," NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon said during a conference call with reporters.

Seventy-four percent of the union members voted for the agreement, which promises job security, including the placement of the 737 MAX program in Renton, Wash., in exchange for employees paying more for health care.

Asked how a contract extension on seemingly unrelated issues made his agency drop a case that alleged that Boeing had built its North Charleston plant in retaliation for the union's strikes, Solomon said the charge "was always about the loss of future jobs in the Seattle area, and this agreement has resolved that issue."

"There is job security in the Washington area," he said. "There is also job security in the North Charleston plant."

Back to business

S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, chairman of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, called the federal NLRB case "bogus" but said he understands why Boeing struck a deal.

"I don't care who you are, a lawsuit throws you off your game to a certain extent," Limehouse said. "Now the cloud has lifted, and we have nothing but blue skies ahead."

Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger dismissed any suggestion that the suit had distracted her co-workers.

"Our focus doesn't change here," Eslinger said. "We've been focused on building airplanes, so that's what we continue to focus on."

Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia also downplayed the effect of the NLRB case and its resolution on Boeing's business partners.

"I'm not so sure how seriously people took it as a threat," he said.

Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said Boeing suppliers still are likely to relocate to the Charleston area only if it makes business sense. Whether Boeing now feels more free to expand its own operations in North Charleston is an open question, Aboulafia said.

"Considering how much of an investment Boeing is making back in the Puget Sound area, I don't know," he said.

Regardless, Aboulafia said, the end of the NLRB case "turns it into a pure competition. Now it's just the usual competitive factors."

How it happened

The origins of the case date to October 2009, when Boeing chose South Carolina for its first final assembly line outside its historical headquarters in the Puget Sound.

The Machinists alleged that Boeing was retaliating against the union for a series of strikes in the past. The NLRB accepted that theory and on April 20 filed its complaint against Boeing.

Hearings in the case began in June and dragged through the summer, with the union and Boeing exchanging documents, some of which showed Boeing considered the labor strife in its decision to build in right-to-work South Carolina.

Then, in mid-October -- secret to all but a select few -- Boeing initiated negotiations with the union.

Solomon said he heard of the resulting tentative deal only the day before it was announced. " I was elated," he recalled Friday.

Solomon said he hopes the amicable resolution of the case means the political heat on the NLRB will abate, but he acknowledged that is beyond his control.

"This case was never about the union or the NLRB telling Boeing where it could put its plants," he said. "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 complaint."

Not if several politicians have their way.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for a congressional investigation Friday to answer "disturbing questions about possible collaboration between the Machinists union and the NLRB against Boeing."

U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, whose district includes the Boeing plant in North Charleston, supports that idea and various other congressional proposals.

"It's hard to remember them all because there's been a proliferation of bills against the NLRB," he said. The Boeing case "merely made us aware of how bad things were, and now to stop pursuing that which is dysfunctional would be dysfunctional in itself," Scott said.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose House Oversight Committee has been investigating the NLRB, also vowed Friday to continue his probe.

Perhaps inspired by the season, Limehouse seemed ready to bury the hatchet.

"What a great Christmas present for the Lowcountry," Limehouse said. "The lawsuit is now settled, and we can get down to serious business."

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.