Members of an independent union at the Wall Street Journal yesterday overwhelmingly rejected a move by its leadership to affiliate with the Communications Workers of America.

The move to affiliate with the more aggressive CWA was defeated by a 655 to 419 vote, representing a victory for management, which had urged its employees to stick with the company union.

"We thought we had this one," said a CWA official who described the results as "a real surprise."

The CWA represents 20,000 production employees at nearly 500 newspapers nationwide. The CWA merged with the International Typographical Union in 1987.

Leaders of the 1,800-member International Association of Publisher's Employees (IAPE) had recommended the affiliation with the 700,000-member CWA following a period of economic turmoil during which the paper has closed bureaus and reduced the size of its editorial staff.

Officials of both unions said they believed the result turned on the fact that employees would have an immediate doubling of their union dues if they affiliated with the CWA. The highest paid Journal employees currently pay $13 a month to IAPE.

But John Hinge, a member of IAPE who helped oversee the election, said he was surprised the affiliation move was "defeated so resoundingly, especially in the various locations around the country."

Doug Sease, another member of the union actively involved in the affiliation campaign, said the vote among the news staff in New York was close -- 131 to 128 against affiliation. The surprise, he said, was the vote among technical and clerical members at the South Brunswick, N.J., plant of Dow Jones & Co., which owns the Wall Street Journal. Sease said the vote in South Brunswick was 260 to 108 against joining the CWA. Details of the rest of the vote were not immediately available.

CWA President Morton Bahr, in a statement issued by the union, said he was "disappointed" with the results and warned that "IAPE members will soon come to realize that, as hard as things are today, they're only going to get tougher." He said affiliation with CWA "would have given Dow Jones employees more ability to effectively fight back."

Bahr chided the company for failing to stay neutral in the affiliation vote. During the affiliation campaign, Dow Jones President Peter Kann wrote a letter to employees in the bargaining unit in which he noted that employees would have to pay higher dues if they voted to affiliate with the CWA, a union that he said "did not necessarily share our values."

Bahr said the vote was "an internal union matter and not one the company should have been involved in. Had Dow Jones remained neutral, we have no doubt the results would have been quite different." CWA officials acknowledged the company action was legal under federal labor law.

Kann and Dow Jones Chairman Warren H. Phillips issued a brief statement saying they were "gratified" the employees had rejected the CWA and that they "looked forward to continued positive relations with the International Association of Publisher's Employees and its members."