Washington — The Teamsters turned Friday to one of its ``old guard'' leaders, William McCarthy, to head the besieged union, narrowly rejecting the image-conscious heir designate of the late Jackie Presser. The union's 17-member General Executive Board elected Mr. McCarthy, of Boston, by a one-vote margin over Secretary-Treasurer Weldon Mathis. McCarthy will fill out the last three years of Mr. Presser's term as the Teamsters' president.
Presser, who died a week ago, had appointed Mr. Mathis, in May as acting president of the 1.6-million-member union. The appointment was to last for 120 days, and was made just before Presser underwent surgery.
Mathis remains the union's secretary-treasurer in the wake of the board's decision Friday.
The turnover in the top post of the nation's largest union - one in every 75 working Americans is a Teamster - occurs just two weeks after the Justice Department filed suit to seize control of its affairs, claiming the union's leadership has been controlled by organized crime for more than 30 years.
McCarthy led a a rump movement among Teamster vice presidents against a new nationwide trucking contract, signed in May, covering some 200,000 union members. McCarthy indicated Friday he now will try to reopen the pact.
The contract was declared ratified, even though 64 percent of the affected members who voted opposed it. Rejection requires a two-thirds vote under the union's constitution.
McCarthy, who has presided over the 8,000-member Teamsters Local 25 in Charlestown, Mass., for 33 years and headed the international union's operations in New England for two decades, declined to discuss his power struggle with Mathis.
The board's exact vote was not announced, but several anonymous sources said McCarthy won by a 9-8 count.
Supporters of Mathis tried several maneuvers to thwart McCarthy's ascension, including postponing the decision until a special convention of 2,000 Teamster representatives could be assembled. But their various proposals were all rejected by the same one-vote margin.
At least two union vice presidents - the board consists of 16 vice presidents and Mathis - objected to declaring the vote for McCarthy unanimous, a Teamster tradition when the mantle is passed from one president to another, one source said.
Both McCarthy and Mathis are viewed by leaders of other labor unions as being ``clean'' - with no major ties to organized crime figures in contrast to the ties that the government alleges that Presser and former Teamster Presidents Roy Williams and Jimmy Hoffa had.
Like all of the Teamster vice presidents, McCarthy was named a defendant in the federal suit to take over the union. But his name surfaced only once in the 200 pages of documents the government filed two weeks ago to support its case.
In a transcript of an FBI-wiretapped conversation on May 9, 1984, convicted New York crime boss Anthony Salerno is quoted as recognizing McCarthy's name as the Teamsters' ``head boss of the East Coast, this guy.''