Patt Curia, 33, walking a picket line in tennis shorts and bright green shirt, and Harry Sanders, 57, suffering from the flu at his sewage treatment plant office, have been drawn together into a revolution, even though they have never met.

Curia, a senior librarian for this rapidly growing city at the south end of San Francisco Bay, and Sanders, the city's senior chemist, both work extra hours, settle quarrels among their large staffs and wrestle with inadequate budgets.

But Sanders, who is a man, makes $5,746 more each year that Curia, who is a woman. That simple fact has led to an unprecedented reevaluation of all San Jose salaries and inspired a landmark strike here over an issue that one federal judge says "is pregnant with the possibility of disrupting the entire economic system of the United States."

Equal pay for equal work is now enshrined in American law and business practice, but equal pay for comparable work is but a small puff of smoke, rising up from this city of 650,000 people to the consternation of city managers and personnel executives all over the country.

Only a few hundred city workers, most of them women, have gone on strike here to raise female sealaries to the level of men with comparable jobs, but labor unions -- particularly the 1 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes -- have embraced the concept. The courts are beginning to get cases to test it.

"It is the new civil rights issue, it is the woman's issue of the 1980s," said San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes, "and we have lit the fuse only."

That this should happen in San Jose is natural, for perhaps no other major American city is so dominated by women.

Hayes, 55, was elected in 1974, the first woman to head a U.S. city of this size, now 17th largest in the country. Drawn by her example and the support of a relatively young and well-educated electorate in an electronics industry boomtown, other women began to appear in top post. Today they fill seven of the 11 seats on the City Council, three of the five seats on the Santa Clara County Coard of Supervisors, the county executive's post, the superintendency of the largest school district in the city and the presidency of the major university, San Jose State.

Demographers and political scientists spin out theories, none of which they can prove, on why San Jose is sometimes called "the feminist capital of the world."

San Jose has been the fastest growing major city in the country in recent years, so "you do not have a coterie of men established in office," said Michael D. Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics. Rapid growth means relatively younger voters who are less tied to old voting patterns. Heavily residential, fairly affluent areas like San Jose have also invariably produced large groups of politically active women.

Hayes, Deputy Mayor Iola Willians, and several other labor and city leaders, including men and women, agreed three years ago to finance a study of male and female salaries.

The report by the Hay Associates included a complicated formula for comparing different jobs, based on "know-how, accountability, problem-solving and working condidtions." It still mystifies many workers here, male and female. But it reported major differences between salaries of workers with the same "job grade points," and that was all the Local 101 of AFSCME, representing about half of the city's 4,000 workers, needed to demand quick action.

Hayes and other female politicians here shake their heads at the thought that they, who pushed for the study, must now suffer a strike because they cannot budget as much money to increase women's salaries as the union would like.

"The action of the union is the most ironic thing to me," said Hayes, a former psychiatric social worker. "In this city, of all cities!" But, she added, "There's no putting the lid back on this Pandora's box."

Besides a general 8 percent wage increase, the union is asking the city to commit $3.2 million to raise female-dominated job salaries over the next four years. Hayes said the city can only promise $1.5 million over the next two years, since it cannot make policy for a new council to be elected in 1982.

About 75 angry union members marched into city council chambers Sunday after the council rejected a tentative, undisclosed settlement by its own negotiator which would have closed that gap. Council members said the city couldn't afford it; the union staged a loud rally outside city hall and the mayor's house.

The union says 1,500 of the 2,000 workers represented by AFSCME have failed to report for work -- an enormous turnout since only 1,000 are union members. But city spokesman Jerry Delgado said an official survey showed little more than 400 absentees at the height of the strike, and a steady decline in absenteeism since.

Alan Riordan, a partner at the San Francisco office Hay Associates, said the firm has had few other customers for studies like San Jose's, which cost $30,000 for the female job analysis.

Businesses consider it too expensive to raise a secretary's pay to a mechanic's level, when the going rate for secretaries is so much lower. Former Washington State governor Dixy Lee Ray rejected a similar pay study because, she said, the cost of implementing it was too great.

Courts are beginning to consider the matter, however. San Diego city librarians and clerks expect to have a federal trial in September on their demand for pay on a level with city engineers and mechanics.

The Supreme Court ruled last month that it is illegal for women to be paid less, simply because they work in jobs dominated by females. Nurses who sued for comparable pay in Denver last year, however, found the U.S. District Court judge believed such a plan could disrupt "the entire economic structure of the United States."

Some women workers here see little sense in determining comparable job value. Vera Totundi, a part-time city nurse with four children and a husband who works for Lockheed, objects only that other nurses working for private hospitals in the area make $6,000 or $7,000 more each year than city nurses.

The Hay study put her on the same level as a much more highly paid senior air conditioner mechanic. "What does that have to do with what a nurse should be paid?" she said.

The senior air conditioner mechanic is an amateur photographer name Tim Bryan.He exudes a respect for the duties of a mechanic not reflected in the gray figures of the Hay report.

Bryan makes $31,434 a year, more than a city nurse at $20,094, even though Bryan and a full-time nurse have only 255 job grade points compared to 493 job grade points for Curia and Sanders.

It is simply harder to find air conditioner mechanics with Bryan's skills than it is to find nurses or librarians, Bryan argues. "People were laughing at what they were offering before," he said.

A recommendation by the same Hay Associates led the city to raise its salary level for the airconditioning job to a point only slightly below what Bryan, 32, was making for a private company. "I came because it was only four blocks from my home. I could see my family and I could ride my bike to work," he said.

The Hay comparability index involves a series of charts and boxes that ask such questions as what is the "thinking challenge" of a job -- "repetitive, patterned or interpretive?" "Interpretive" receives the most points.

In the case Curia and Sanders, as interpreted by the city's Hay report director, David Armstrong, their two jobs balanced out: although the chemist had to solve more intricate problems and risk diease or chemical poisoning from dealing with sewage, the librarian had to work more independently and could create more havoc through error because she dealt so closely with the public.

Curia has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in library science from San Jose State University. Sanders has worked for the city for 25 years. Yet, in compiling its "know-how" index, the Hay study seems more concerned with how much knowledge and expertise a job requires, rather than how much knowledge the job holder possesses. Curia's and Sanders' jobs come out even, 264 points each, on the "know-how" index.

In "problem-solving," Sanders' job gets 115 points, Curia's 100.

As Armstrong explains it, the library problem-solving "is more standard, the chemist more technical," so the chemist gets more points.

In their "accountability" ratings, Curia gets 132 points and Sanders 115. Curia supervises 12 staffers, while Sanders usually has 22. Curia must arrange for purchase of about $70,000 in materials each year, while Sanders' budget may go to $500,000.

Yet it is the harm they can do if they make a mistake that seems to make a more important outrage from the tax-paying voters she must help. Sanders said that "you'd have to reach pretty far" to imagine an immediate problem that could occur from a single miscalulation in the data he collects, since it comes from so many sources and is checked so often.

Since Sanders must beware of chlorine and sulfur dioxide poisoning in his work, he gets seven extra points for bad working conditions, while Curia gets none.

Curia believes, "I have been discriminated against." As a member of the negotiating team, she is working hard to change that.

Sanders, although he has quit the union and doesn't think a man in a job like his should strike, tends to agree. He leaned back in his lab-conference room and spoke admiringly of the technical knowledge required of librarians these days.

"I'm surprised they rank my job equal with hers," he said. "I thought they'd rate her higher."