By Harriet McLeod
NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney praised Boeing's new airplane assembly plant in South Carolina on Monday and criticized President Barack Obama for putting "labor stooges" on the board that is suing the company for building there.
The $750 million plant, which opened in June, has become a political football as a symbol of labor issues and the role of federal agencies.
Last spring, the National Labor Relations Board sued Boeing, saying that the company built the plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, to punish its union workers in Washington state. The board seeks to force Boeing to move its 787 Dreamliner assembly work back to Washington.
Romney toured the plant with former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed his onetime rival on Monday.
Afterward, Romney told a crowd of about 80 supporters at North Charleston's City Hall chamber that Obama made labor-friendly appointments to the board to pursue an "unseemly" political payback strategy.
"There is without a question an egregious example of political payback, where the president is able to pay back unions for the hundreds of millions of dollars they put into his campaign at the expense of American workers and American jobs," Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor said Obama's labor policies were destructive to industry, hiring and job growth.
Romney said as president he would seek to bar unions from using member dues for political campaigns and encourage states to pass right-to-work laws.
Businesses should be allowed to decide where they want to locate and how they want to grow, he said.
"Boeing chose South Carolina, chose America. The folks that are their number one competitor, Airbus Industry, they chose China," Romney said. "Boeing should not be punished...Boeing should be encouraged."
He said he believed in the union movement and noted unions can be helpful when they partner with management.
South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt said Romney seemed more interested in "scoring cheap political points" than talking with working families about their concerns.
"Throughout his campaign, Romney has shown that his priorities lie with corporations and the rich, not working people in South Carolina or across the country," Dewitt said in a statement after the candidate's labor speech.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)