The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has won a major lawsuit against the state of Washington and put the legal concept of equal pay for work of comparable value on the map once and for all. The decision by a federal judge is the most far-ranging application to date of the principle that employers must give equal pay not only to people performing the same job but also to people performing different jobs that require similar effort and abilities.

The decision culminates a 10-year effort that began when the state AFSCME notified Gov. Dan Evans that a number of female state employes were being paid less than male employes even though their jobs were similar. Studies commissioned by Evans of predominantly male and female job classifications revealed that jobs held predominantly by women were paid about 20 percent less than jobs with the same rating points held predominantly by men. The job of a clerk typist, for example, received the same number of points as that of the warehouse worker but clerk typists were paid at 10 levels below warehouse workers. The difference meant that women earned about $175 less a month than men in similar jobs.

In 1977, Evans requested $7 million to begin remedying the pay inequity, but incoming Gov. Dixy Lee Ray dropped the request from her budget. AFSCME filed suit in July 1982, charging the state with violations of the Federal Civil Rights Act, the state's Equal Rights Amendment, and its civil service act, and asking for full implementation of comparable-worth salary increases and back pay. The trial began on Aug. 29 in Tacoma, Wash. before Federal District Court Judge Jack Tanner. He ruled last Friday that the state government was guilty of pervasive wage discrimination against many of its female workers and set a second trial date of Nov. 14 to establish the compensation the state must pay.

Winn Newman, who argued the case for AFSCME, said the state has estimated compensation to be about $600 million and he is estimating it to be closer to a billion dollars. About 17,000 people, including men, who are in the affected job categories will get relief.

Classified advertisements for male- and female-only jobs placed by the state in newspapers prior to 1973 were introduced by AFSCME as pivotal evidence of deliberate job discrimination. The ads established that the state had made a deliberate distinction between jobs for women and jobs for men. Jobs employing mostly women are always paid less, causing a systemic discrimination that persists to this day, according to Newman. "Men aren't going to go to those jobs because they don't pay enough," he says.

"I think the same device of looking back at classified ads is available against every large employer in the country," Newman added. "They all did it."

The statistics assembled in the course of the case were devastating: in comparing jobs of similar skill, effort and responsibility, AFSCME was able to demonstrate that the monthly wage dropped $4.52 for every percentile increase in the number of women working in a job category. Evidence also showed that half of all job categories were exclusively male, and only 3.5 percent of the women employes worked in integrated jobs.

The conventional wisdom on comparable-worth cases has been that they are difficult to prove precisely because it is necessary to compare jobs that are different, although Newman points out that job evaluations constantly go on in labor relations. As a result, there has been relatively little comparable-worth litigation since the Supreme Court broadened pay equity claims to include jobs that are dissimilar in June 1981. Librarians in Fairfax County have begun the process and have filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The case against the state of Washington involved 3,000 job categories, far more than most employers have. It went to trial within 13 months and the trial was over in two weeks, which should set to rest the widespread belief that pay equity suits necessarily take years to litigate. AFSCME, which has a million members, including 400,000 women, plans to pursue similar cases against other state and local governments.

The Washington case is a model of how systemic wage discrimination came into being. But more significantly for the future, the suit is a model of how unions and women's organizations can use existing laws to destroy it.