Twenty-six years ago Hermon Cannady joined the ranks of the Government Printing Office. Cannady was 31 at the time and one of the first blacks on GPO's security force.He started out with the rank of private but later qualified for and completed officer's training.

But since 1955, Cannady, vice president of Local 2738 of the American Federation of Government Employees and a gutsy guy known to speak his mind, has moved up in the ranks only once. GPO's director of security, Manuel Brito, said Cannady has a good record at the agency and has never been in trouble. But today, one year away from retirement, the 57-year-old Cannady is a private first class.

"Blacks didn't get promotions at the time," said Cannady, recalling his earlier years. Later in his career he didn't advance because of his outspokenness, he said. "I've always had nerve enough to tell them what I thought."

Cannady's candor is uncommon at the Government Printing Office at North Capitol and H streets NW, an old, massive red brick building that, as a federal agency, is perhaps second only to the U.S. Post office in the number of District residents it employs.

Here, where more than 11 billion pages of brochures, studies and documents were printed last year, dozens of workers, speaking in hushed tones and looking warily over their shoulders outside the building and inside its corridors, said that those who complain about working conditions are targeted as troublemakers. Distrust and paranoia set the stage for an uncomfortable environment at GPO, where the smell of ink and glue mingles with the grinding of press and bindery machines in the largest printing plant in the nation.

"If you went in there you'd think you're in the Deep South," said a neatly bearded composing room worker, contending that giving his name or personal experiences "would only bring down more on me."

Although working conditions are better for blacks and women today, Cannady and other employes say harassment, favoritism and the kind of discrimination that held Cannady back have become institutionalized. A U.S. District judge in 1977 ruled in favor of 600 black men who had filed a discrimination suit against GPO four years earlier. Two years ago, GPO lost another discrimination suit filed by female employes in the bindery section in 1973. GPO has appealed both cases.

Last year, a federal government study showed that inequities in opportunities and pay still exist. The report said that blacks, who represent just over half of GPO's workers, still earn substantially less than whites, and women less than men.

"What's the reason? In the entire federal government it's basically the same thing," said GPO Equal Employment Opportunity director Charles Perry. "If you want me to say discrimination, I guess I would have to say discrimination, tradition, almost anything."

Such charges are not new to GPO. In the late 1960s the Urban League, NAACP and the Council for Negro Progess in Government sponsored protests and helped organize workers who criticized the agency's policies.

Washington Urban League President Jerome Page calls repeated patterns of discrimination within organizations "institutional racism." He says the practice, which occurs systematically when decision makers don't consider the full impact of personnel policies, denies minorities opportunities for better pay and career advancement.

While GPO appeals the lawsuit verdicts charging it with repeated discrimination against women and blacks, the agency's employes are waiting to see what changes, if any, will be made by the Reagan administration and its appointees to the agency's top management positions.

In an open letter to his staff, Public Printer Danford Sawyer Jr., who heads GPO, said he was concerned about "morale and attitudinal problems" and pledged to consider suggestions by GPO employes. Many employes said they believe Sawyer is sincere, and are hopeful that their problems will be heard. Some said they are pleased that for the first time in GPO's 120-year history a black, Theodore Lyons, is serving as Sawyer's executive assistant and confidential advisor.

In an interview last week, Lyons and Judith Morton, GPO's public affairs director and legislative liaison, said that GPO is concerned about charges of discrimination and low morale. They said the agency has begun to seek solutions.

"The key word is change," said Morton, who during the interview repeatedly interrupted Lyons' responses to questions and answered for him at times, focusing on what GPO hopes to do to improve working conditions rather than talking about the problems.

"In the past (there have been) very little, even cosmetic changes," Morton said. Morton also said that some of the ways GPO is attempting to boost morale and enhance working conditions -- aside from reviewing personnel and promotion policies -- include fresh paint for the employe cafeteria, office plants and paintings, and employe tours of the Public Printer's office.

"People have been doing that for years," said Frederick Butler, one of several press workers gathered in front of the GPO building recently. They said that fresh paint, office tours and office plants don't address their problems of discrimination and low morale.

The 1980 Federal Civilian Workforce Study of the Office of Personnel Management found that minorities and women are heavily concentrated in the agency's lower paying and nonsupervisory positions.

According to the study, the average salary of minority GPO employes, most of whom are clustered around the GS-5 level or equivalent, is $18,541. Salaries for nonminority men, the majority employed at the GS-12 level or equivalent, average $24,915.

Women employed at GPO last year, according to the study, earned an average of $16,931 while clustered around the same employment grades as blacks.

In the past, one of GPO's defenses has been that the agency structure concentrates employes in either top management or lower-level production jobs with little room for advancement to the few mid-level slots in between.

Sawyer, who took over as Public Printer in June, said, "I see no reason why (the overall ratio of blacks and women to white males) shouldn't be reflected up and down the ranks."

Although he is "not consciously putting a woman or minority in for the sake of putting them in", he said, there will be a "marked increase in middle- and upper-management positions . . . filled by blacks and women."

Sawyer said a lot of the changes affecting blacks and women will come through natural attrition and a freeze on outside hiring, which it is estimated will reduce employe rolls by about 900 over the next three years. Sawyer is instituting retraining programs to enable present employes, including women and minorities, to fill vacant management and supervisory slots and move into new positions created by rapid changes in printing technology.

Sawyer's pet project is the Quality Circle of Worklife, a voluntary program in which groups of employes regularly voice their problems and suggest solutions in discussions with supervisors and managers. Sawyer hopes the Quality Circle project will boost the morale of employes who feel little control over bad situations and see little hope for improvement.

There was no such project for Dorothy Thompson to turn to several years ago to complain about salary and opportunity inequities between male and female workers. Thompson said she had to go to court to get people to listen. She was a bindery machine operator eight years ago when she filed suit against GPO, charging the agency with discriminating against women by keeping them in jobs classified as noncraft positions. The women contended that they were paid less than men because of the job classification although their work involved equal difficulty and responsibility.

In a 1980 decision, a U.S. District judge awarded the women $16 million in back pay. Those findings are under appeal, however, and Thompson has been assigned as a supervisor in the interim. The move has hiked her salary from $18,000 to $32,000 a year.

Thompson remembers the way she was treated when she bucked the system. "People sort of snarled up their noses while you were going through," she said recently. "Now it's 'Good morning Mrs. Thompson.' They bend over backwards trying to make things go smoothly."

Most of the charges against GPO concern sex or race discrimination but complaints aren't confined to blacks or women. Carter Daniel, 32, is one of several whites who claim they too are harassed and the victims of favoritism. The reasons range from not being a union member to just being unpopular with an old-boy network of white males in supervisory positions.

Daniel, an offset pressman, says he gets the dirtiest and most difficult tasks, is chastized for being even one minute late and gets letters of warning for the least infraction. Supervisors "can go by the book but if it's a buddy they ignore it," Daniel complained.

Joseph Jenifer started at GPO 26 years ago filing negatives, but he says he has no cause to complain. He was promoted four months ago to deputy production manager, a post that pays $50,000 a year. Jenifer, who is black, said he was able to move up through the ranks because he learned a craft -- electronic photocomposition -- that was new and evolving when he entered it. As for discrimination at GPO, Jenifer said, "There's no more racism in GPO than our society as a whole."

A half dozen pressmen and truck loaders gathered outside GPO during a warm fall noon and explained that the awesome, much discussed fear of harassment kept them from telling their own stories of discrimination. "It ain't what you know, its who you know," one of them said.

A slightly built, gold-toothed man passed by and offered a different point of view. "No one can stop you from getting what you deserve," he said in a lilting Jamaican accent. Although he has no gripe, he too wanted to conceal his identity and limited it to "Fagan."

Charles Campbell, a web press supervisor, sat alone at another side of the building, away from the other employes. His words come out easily at first. "There's a lot of discrimination going on," Campbell said. Suddenly, however, there was a pause, a concentrated silence. "I don't know if I'm supposed to say . . . ." Campbell is white and later allowed that "everybody's been discriminated against."

Many who work at GPO are like Frederick Butler of Southeast, who finds the pay on GPO's production line too good to pass up. He is an offset stripper, has worked at GPO for 16 years and earns $30,000 a year.

Butler explained the bottom line: "We tolerate what's going on here because of the money."

But even Butler was cautious. He boasted of speaking his mind and being his own man: "I even teach my son that, to speak up for himself." But Butler had second thoughts soon afterwards.

"Oh well," he sighed. "They'll probably call me upstairs and ask what else did I say."