Whatever happens to the Equal Rights Amendment, it is becoming increasingly clear that one of the next issues that will dominate the women's movement is that of equal pay for equal work and equal pay for work of comparable value. It is an issue that challenges the oldest assumption in the American wage structure, namely that men's work is worth more than women's work, and it is an issue that is already being pressed by unions in courts and by women's groups in politics.

The American Nurses Association, with 170,000 members, formed a political education department six months ago and already has set up political coordinators in a third of the congressional districts. The ANA plans to endorse candidates and get nurses to the polls. Where candidates stand on pay equity is a question being asked of every candidate, according to ANA field organizer Pat Ford-Roegner. The ANA has also put together a Political Action Committee and plans to give more than $150,000 to congressional candidates this year. Joanne Symons, political education director of the ANA and a former New Hampshire legislator and state Democratic chairman, points out that one in every 44 women voters is a registered nurse.

Labor lawyer Winn Newman, who has litigated numerous pay discrimination cases, spoke yesterday at an ANA meeting that brought together representatives of different women's organizations to learn about pay equity and its handling in court. He blamed some of the current wage discrepancy--women now earn only 59 cents for every dollar a man earns--on the federal government's failure to enforce the Equal Pay Act of 1964 until the late 1970s. He believes that far too few people realize that pay discrimination is illegal, and actionable under the Civil Rights Act.

"Equal pay for equal work is only the tip of the iceberg," he said, adding that few employers are now indulging in such blatantly illegal activity as paying men and women differently for the same job. "But virtually every employer in the United States who has employed women prior to the Civil Rights Act is in violation of" that act because the employer established a wage structure that paid women's jobs less than men's. It is particularly obvious in entry-level, low-skilled jobs where the applicant is looking for work and it is the employer who assigns him or her to different kinds of jobs, invariably with different pay and advancement opportunities.

When job classifications are evaluated, even by studies commissioned by employers, they have inevitably discovered patterns of discrimination, Newman said. A Wisconsin study of state workers found that blue-collar employes earned 20 percent more than clerical employes. A state of Washington study found that nurses, with jobs valued at being worth 573 points, were paid less than chemists with a job evaluation of 277 points; that librarians with a 353-point evaluation earned less than carpenters, who had a 197-point evaluation, and that nurse practitioners earned much less than associate facilities engineers, who have lower job ratings.

Newman argues that there is a clear parallel between the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that separating races and giving an inferior education to blacks constituted discrimination, and what is going on with women: They are being segregated by occupation and being given an inferior pay scale. And while the law now prohibits pay discrimination, he says that unless there is a lot more litigation in both the public and private sector there is no reason for an employer, who is strictly interested in making money, to comply. All he can lose is back pay. "Employers don't consider this a moral issue, yet. It's not like stealing yet, but that's what it is."

The ANA and a number of major labor unions, as well as the Women's National Democratic Club-PAC, have asked the Democratic Party to make a major thematic commitment to the concepts of pay equity and of equal pay for work of comparable value at its mid-term conference next week in Philadelphia. They want the party to make this a priority during the coming congressional campaigns and to incorporate in its conference reports a strong statement endorsing joint worker-employer job evaluation and pay equity studies, collective bargaining to correct undervaluation of jobs and vigorous government action to enforce existing pay discrimination laws.

Women voters, according to the polls, are tending more and more toward the Democratic Party and away from the Reagan administration. Pay equity is an issue of the future that the Democratic Party would do well to embrace now.