WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sprint Corp. must rehire and pay back wages and benefits to employees of a San Francisco telemarketing operation closed more than two years ago during a union organizing drive, the government says.

In a ruling last week, the National Labor Relations Board found Sprint and its subsidiary intimidated pro-union employees and faked a letter to make it seem the office was being closed for business reasons.

Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint disputed the finding and said it filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

The Communications Workers of America, which tried to organize the shop, said 177 workers lost their jobs when La Conexion Familiar closed in July 1994, eight days before an organizing vote the union was expected to win.

The subsidiary sold long-distance telephone service to Spanish-speaking customers.

A three-member labor board panel said Sprint had practiced ``widespread misconduct, demonstrating a general disregard for the employees' fundamental rights,'' and it issued a broad order for the company to cease and desist from illegal anti-union activity.

Supervisors repeatedly threatened employees with closure of the office if they voted to unionize, the panel said.

The ruling amended the decision of an administrative law judge who had found that despite widespread anti-union practices, Sprint appeared to have compelling reasons for closing the operation that were unrelated to the organizing drive.

The NLRB judge, Gerald Wacknov, ruled in August 1995 that Sprint's motivation was financial, because the subsidiary was a money-loser from the start and Sprint was unable to turn it around or sell it. U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco had reached a similar conclusion in November 1994 in refusing to order Sprint to reopen La Conexion Familiar.

At one point, a Sprint official tried to create a paper trail to show the company was planning to close the office before the union campaign.

He asked someone from an outplacement service to send him a back-dated letter referring to efforts to help employees find new jobs. The panel said company officials later admitted it was a fake.

A Sprint spokesman, Bill White, said: ``We find it surprising that the NLRB did not uphold the well-reasoned findings of its own administrative law judge, and we filed today in federal court (in Washington) to appeal the ruling.''

White said the company had stipulated with the law judge ``that we found one second-level manager and five supervisors (who acted) contrary to Sprint's policy'' and labor laws.

Also, he said, the judge agreed the company closed LCF ``strictly for financial reasons.'' Business had dropped from 200,000 customers to fewer than 80,000 in less than a year prior to its closing.