The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees took its campaign for pay equity for women into courts, state legislatures and union negotiations last year, a three-pronged attack that yielded impressive gains for the concept of equal pay for jobs of comparable worth. So far as anyone can tell, the free market hasn't been destroyed, nor has any state economy.

Pragmatism and the art of compromise seem to be carrying the day. The state of Washington, where a landmark court ruling threatened to cost the state's taxpayers somewhere between $500 million and $800 million in back pay and remedial wage increases, negotiated an out-of-court settlement after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the original court decision. Both the state and AFSCME had the option of facing years of appeals and costly litigation or reaching a compromise that would have produced a rapid improvement in wages for workers in those job categories.

The legislature had appropriated funds last summer to achieve pay equity if an out-of-court settlement could be reached by Dec. 31. It was, and on that day AFSCME and Gov. Booth Garnder announced that $46.5 million would be spent from April 1, 1986, through June 30, 1987, to correct the inequities in the state wage scale. Another $10 million would be spent each July 1 from 1987 to 1992 to complete the upgrading of these jobs.

The legal questions that arose in the case -- whether federal equal pay protections extend to comparable jobs as well as the same jobs, whether there was sufficient evidence that the state had discriminated against women in wages, and so forth -- never reached a final hearing. The appeals court decision, in fact, was widely viewed as a setback for comparable worth. Yet the legislature and the governor clearly saw that there was a problem -- and were willing to appropriate $100 million to resolve it. And AFSCME, instead of dragging Washington state employes through years of litigation in order to prove a point of law, was willing to drop back pay, which was the costliest part of the original award, and settle for improving workers' paychecks beginning this year. Both sides can claim victory because both the state employes in those job categories will benefit and so will the taxpayers.

So, too, can other advocates of comparable worth. The original judgment against the state, which was so enormous, got the nation's attention last year as no debate over the issue ever had. Opponents of using comparable worth as a means of improving wages of working women suddenly had a powerful argument against it -- namely, that it could bankrupt states or certainly cause huge tax increases. (This has a lot more resonance with taxpayers than vague arguments about the free market.) In the end, however, reasonable minds prevailed and comparable worth has survived as a tool for identifying and remedying wage inequities that came about through years and years of devaluing work done by women, because it was done by women.

Earlier in December, AFSCME negotiated a contract with Chicago that included $1.3 million to upgrade the wages of 3,500 workers in predominantly female jobs. In return, AFSCME dropped its sex discrimination suit against the city. It negotiated a $12 million pay equity adjustment for clerical and library employes in Los Angeles; a $20 million, four-year adjustment for 6,000 employes of the state of Iowa; a $40 million, four-year settlement for 9,000 Minnesota employes and a $5.6 million pay equity adjustment for 9,000 Connecticut state employes; and it secured $36 million to continue upgrading wages of New York state employes.

Unions and women's groups went the legislative route in Wisconsin and secured a $9.1 appropriation for the first year of pay equity adjustments. Diana Rock, director of AFSCME's women's rights project, said the Wisconsin victory was particularly significant because the business community had campaigned vigorously against it, hiring a lobbyist, buying radio spots, sponsoring sophisticated mailings and notifying legislators that this was the crucial vote of the year. An amendment allowing men's salaries to be lowered to achieve equity was vetoed by the governor.

Most of these settlements have been reached after consultants were hired to examine wage structures and found that there were, indeed, inequities. They were reached without costly litigation and the risk of huge back pay awards. And, in the process, participants and observers have examined the value of the kind of work that women do. Truck drivers have not been diminished -- clerks, nurses, librarians and others have been enhanced.