The political significance of the Boeing deal

The Boeing/NLRB issue hasn’t been especially prominent at the national level, but in Republican circles — especially in the presidential primary in South Carolina — it’s a big deal.

And as of today, it’s pretty much over.

After decades of bitter relations, Boeing and the machinists’ union vowed a new era of cooperation on Wednesday as they announced a far-reaching four-year contract extension that would raise wages, improve pensions and add thousands of new assembly jobs in Washington State to build an updated version of its 737 jet.

Union officials said that the deal resolved their disputes with Boeing and that they would ask the National Labor Relations Board to drop a politically charged case against Boeing over a new plant it opened this year in South Carolina. The agency, which filed the case in April in response to a complaint by the machinists’ union, is asserting that the company’s decision to build the $750 million plant in South Carolina constituted illegal retaliation against machinists in Washington for exercising their right to strike.

When the NLRB targeted Boeing, GOP officials, most notably Gov. Nikki Haley (R), were apoplectic. So too was Republican media, with the story drawing overheated (and largely wrong) condemnations from Rush Limbaugh, Charles Krauthammer, and a variety of on-air Fox News personalities, several of whom crafted wild conspiracy theories about President Obama trying to crush the private sector at the behest of union bosses.

The right’s fury was predictable but misguided. The NLRB had ample reason to believe Boeing illegally moved from a union plant (in the state of Washington) to a non-union plant (in South Carolina) to retaliate against previous labor strikes, and the board took steps to enforce the law. Republicans seemed outraged by the notion that a federal agency could intervene to prevent an illegal corporate move that circumvented labor laws.

The agreement reached this week should effectively resolve the conflict.

It should also, as Alec MacGillis notes, take away a key Republican talking point.

Republicans have seized on [the NLRB’s] action as Exhibit A of the Obama administration’s war against private industry, and even some labor supporters privately acknowledged the move was not ideal in its symbolism or timing. [NLRB general counsel Lafe Solomon] believed that he had no choice but to take the action to enforce the law, as a Boeing executive was on the record telling a newspaper that the move to South Carolina was being undertaken in response to threats of labor unrest in Washington state. But while plenty of labor supporters believe strongly in the larger issue at stake — the damage done when companies shift work to lower paid, nonunion workforces — it was clear that this was not the best moment to be having that argument, in the midst of an anemic recovery when Republicans could point to the empty plant in South Carolina, put on hold by Solomon’s action, as explicit proof of Obama’s alleged anti-business intentions.

And now, it appears to be over. Nikki Haley will have to find something else to talk about.