In 1955 Hermon Cannady became one of the first blacks on the security force of the Government Printing Office. Cannady was 31 and started with the rank of private but later started with the rank of private but later qualified for and completed officer's training.

But in 26 years 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 Inspector General, Manuel Brito, said Cannady has a good record at the agency and never has 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 believes his candor also is responsible for an offer of a transfer from GPO headquarters in downtown Washington to its huge warehouse in Laurel.

"They were just trying to get me out of their hair," he says.

Had Cannady made the move, he would have been one of 413 employes transferred between 1974 and 1976 from Washington to GPO's Cherry Lane warehouse in the heart of Laurel's business district.

Cannady didn't have to accept the transfer. But most of the other workers transferred during that period had no choice. They were employes in GPO's Documents Division, responsible for stocking the government's publications and filling orders for them. Most lived nearer to Washington than to Laurel and the transfer is still a sore spot among them because they must commute 90 minutes by car or four hours round trip by bus to get to their jobs.

And it is but one cause of low morale in a federal system where charges of favoritism, harassment and discrimination are rampant.

The Government Printing Office employs nearly 6,900 people, who live throughout the metropolitan area. It is headquartered in a massive old red-brick complex at North Capitol and H streets NW, where more than 11 billion pages of brochures, studies and documents were printed last year. It is the largest printing plant in the nation. Dozens of workers speak in hushed tones and look warily over their shoulders outside the building and inside its corridors. Some said that those who complain about working conditions are branded as troublemakers.

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

Workers at the Laurel warehouse said their situation is similar. "It's a plantation," said battery truck operator Reginald Butler.

Employes said that although they believe discrimination exists at Laurel, few workers bother to complain openly.

Donna Washington, GPO's Equal Employment Opportunity counselor in Laurel, said "Nobody complains, not like they ought to. They mumble and grumble among themselves but a lot of things go unchecked." She believes this is unfortunate because "a lot of the little teeny things are the stepping stones" for possible discrimination.

Norman Hawkins, 54, has been a GPO employe 34 years and is now a supply technician in the Laurel warehouse. He said he sees little difference in the levels of discrimination, harassment and favoritism between the two complexes.

Laurel workers complain less, he said, because they fear reprisal, believe things won't change and, in these inflationary days, are anxious to protect their paychecks. "A whole lot of people are closed-mouthed because they got to stay here," Hawkins said.

Although working conditions are better for blacks and women today, Cannady, Butler, Hawkins and other employes at both sites say harassment, favoritism and the kind of discrimination that held Cannady back have become institutionalized. In 1977 a U.S. District judge 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 bindery employes in 1973. GPO has appealed both decisions.

Last year, a federal government study showed that inequities in opportunities and pay still exist. The report said that blacks, who represent slightly more than 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 Council for Negro Progress in Government sponsored protests and helped organize workers who criticized the agency's policies.

While GPO appeals the two lawsuit verdicts that it is guilty of repeated discrimination against women and blacks, 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 from employes. Many workers said they believe Sawyer is sincere, and hope 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, Lyons and Judith Morton, GPO public affairs director and legislative liaison, said the agency is concerned about charges of discrimination and low morale, and has begun to seek solutions.

"The key word is change," said Morton, who during the interview repeatedly interrupted Lyons' responses to questions and at times answered for him.

"In the past (there have been) very little even cosmetic changes," Morton said. She said GPO is reviewing personnel and promotion policies, and added that other attempts to boost morale and enhance working conditions 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 GPO headquarters recently. They complained that fresh paint, office tours and 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 Sawyer said he is "not consciously putting a woman or minority in for the sake of putting them in," he predicted 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 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.

Most of the charges against GPO concern sex or race discrimination but complaints aren't confined to blacks or women. Carter Daniel, 32, is among several whites who claim they too are harassed and are 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, he said.

Daniel, a Prince George's County resident and offset pressman at the Washington plant, says he gets the dirtiest and most difficult tasks, is rebuked 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 says he has no cause to complain. He was appointed four months ago to deputy production manager, a Washington post that pays $50,000 a year. Jenifer, who is black, said "There's no more racism in GPO than our society as a whole." Society's condition? "It's racist," Jenifer said.

In the cafeteria at the Laurel warehouse, where microwave ovens heat up cold vending machine sandwiches, a small crowd gathered around a lunchtime card game. When they were first transferred to Laurel seven years ago, said many among the gathering of black employes, they were met by freshly painted racial epithets on the building's exterior. " 'Niggers Go Back Home,' that's what it said," one man recalled.

Reginald Butler has been a GPO employe for 13 years and said he makes about $20,000 a year. Butler explained why he and others accepted the transfers and remain at Laurel today. "We can't go (to another job) and make the kind of money we make now," he said.