For top executives of the Wall Street Journal, the vote could not have come at a worse time.

For 50 years, the nation's leading business newspaper has enjoyed good relations with a tame in-house union formed to keep out organized labor. But in balloting that ends today, 1,800 employees of Dow Jones & Co., which owns the Journal, are deciding whether to affiliate with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), an aggressive union that conducted four strikes last year. Results are to be announced tomorrow.

In recent weeks, the financially struggling Journal has closed its bureaus in Philadelphia and Vancouver, British Columbia; enticed or pressured 15 senior employees into early retirement; moved its European and Asian copy desks to New York; and laid off reporters in Houston, Los Angeles, Brussels, New Delhi and Seoul. Many staffers expect the CWA to win the election.

"A lot of people are going to be voting because they're concerned about their jobs or are angry about the company's handling of the layoffs and buyouts," said medical reporter Michael Waldholz, a leader of the in-house group.

Journal reporters who constantly ask other companies for information said they are embarrassed that management refuses to disclose publicly how many employees have lost their jobs. They also contrast the cutbacks with the company's decision last year to award Chairman Warren H. Phillips a $1 million bonus, on top of his $780,000 salary, on grounds that he was underpaid.

"We've written stories about how you handle something like this, and our managers obviously haven't read them," one reporter said.

Dow Jones President Peter Kann, who is to succeed Phillips as chairman next month, declined to be interviewed. In a recent letter, he told employees, "I certainly do not maintain that Dow Jones is free of problems or that the next few years will be easy for any of us." Kann dismissed the CWA as "an AFL-CIO union composed of hundreds of thousands of telephone workers and others who do not necessarily share our values."

The recession on Wall Street and in the publishing business has hit Dow Jones particularly hard, even prompting executives to sell the corporate jet.

The Journal's advertising lineage fell 17 percent in August compared with the same month a year earlier. The price of Dow Jones stock plunged 41 percent from January to October before rebounding somewhat. Journal circulation has dropped about 7 percent, to 1.9 million, from its 1983 peak.

After long enjoying a virtual monopoly on sophisticated business reporting, the Journal faces increasing national competition from the New York Times, USA Today, Investor's Daily, Financial Times and electronic data services, as well as steadily improving business coverage at local papers around the country.

"Ten years ago, if you were a businessman, you had to read the Wall Street Journal," said newspaper analyst John Morton. "That's not true anymore."

The paper, which raised its price from 50 cents to 75 cents last week, expanded rapidly during the 1980s, adding a third daily section, a European edition and many reporters. Dow Jones also spent more than $1.5 billion to acquire Telerate, an electronic financial-information service.

Employees entitled to vote in the union certification election range from secretaries paid less than $20,000 to reporters making $80,000 to $100,000. It also includes employees at such Dow Jones properties as Barron's and the Ottaway newspaper chain.

Ron Chen, president of the in-house union, the International Association of Publishers' Employees, said the paper has changed since he was hired in 1981. "When I came, there really was a feeling that the Journal was a public trust," Chen said. "There was a post office mentality -- you did a good job, your employers took care of you."

Chen said the union is "almost invisible" and hard pressed to bargain with management because all but one of its staff are volunteers. He said an affiliation with the CWA, which has 700,000 members, would give employees more professional representation. The CWA, which represents newspaper production employees through its merger with the International Typographical Union, is trying to expand its presence in the industry.

Kann, in his letters to the staff, noted that dues for the highest-paid employees, now $13 a month, would nearly triple by 1993 if the CWA prevails.

Dow Jones employees are receiving raises of 15.5 percent in their current three-year contract, which Kann said was higher than those won by the communications union, even after its 17-week strike at Nynex Corp., the regional telephone company. Kann said the CWA has "its own national and international agendas."

But CWA organizer Ed Sabol said many Dow Jones employees are tired of what he termed the company's paternalistic approach. "A lot of the relationship is built upon benign treatment -- 'We're nice to you because we choose to be nice to you,' " he said.

While Dow Jones employees rejected affiliation with a national graphics union in 1987, the mood these days is "dour, preoccupied, a little despairing," one reporter said. Many employees said the layoffs were handled with little sensitivity.

Reporter Gary Lamphier, who moved with his wife from Toronto to Vancouver 15 months ago, was recently told that the Journal is abolishing his one-person bureau.

"I purchased a home here on the expectation I'd be here at least a couple of years," said Lamphier, who has had no offers on the house even after cutting the price by $20,000. "Vancouver was deemed to be a luxury the Journal couldn't afford."

Lamphier said he turned down a proposed transfer to the Dow Jones news service in Toronto because "I didn't come to the company to work for the ticker," as it is known.

Bill Echikson was laid off from the Brussels bureau after being hired away from the Christian Science Monitor last spring. He did not receive another offer.

Jolie Solomon learned that the Philadelphia bureau was closing the day after she arrived from Washington to be deputy bureau chief. She quit rather than accept a transfer to New York.

Several highly regarded editors and Stan Penn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, opted for early retirement, in some cases under what sources describe as strong management pressure.

Dow Jones spokesman Roger May said complaints of unfair treatment were based on "misinformation. In anything like this, you're going to have some circumstances that provide some difficulty for people." The Journal's approach, including voluntary buyouts, was "the fairest way to do it," he said.

But others said Dow Jones is overreacting to temporary setbacks. "This is still a very wealthy company," one senior staffer said. "This is still a company that's going to make over $100 million this year."

Few have failed to notice the irony of such an upheaval at a newspaper whose pages are filled with business advice.

"As financial reporters, we write about this stuff all the time -- layoffs, dislocations," Waldholz said. "But we've always been above the fray. Now we're in the fray, and it hurts."