LEGISLATORS IN the state of Washington were surprised and worried in 1983 when state employees won a comparable worth lawsuit and damages that were estimated to total between $800 million and $1 billion. Even though that judgment was later overturned by a federal appeals court, the government still faced the prospect of further appeals and a possible enormous tax increase for the citizens of the state. To avoid both, a decision was made to settle the case out of court, and the legislature provided an incentive: if a settlement was reached before the end of 1985, $42 million would be made available to implement it. On New Year's Eve at 6 p.m. an agreement was announced.

At issue were wage discrepancies between jobs traditionally held by women and the more commonly held by men. When men and women hold the same jobs, they must be paid equally. That is already the law. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees charged that whole categories of jobs were underpaid because they have been traditionally viewed as women's work. The union alleged that nurses, secretaries and clerical workers, for example, were being paid less than men in other jobs that are comparable in terms of skills, education, responsibility and working conditions. An expert hired by the state agreed and suggested the massive wage restructuring that prompted the suit.

The settlement does not call for back pay, as the original court decision had. Instead, current workers in jobs found to be underpaid will receive a series of adjustments between now and July 1992 to bring their salaries up to the agreed upon grade. Those who are farthest behind will move up at a faster rate. The total package will cost $97.2 million over the life of the contract, so te approval of the legislature will be required.

Courts are the least desirable forum for determining wage rates in thousands of jobs. Traditionally, these decisions have been hammered out at the bargaining table by the parties whose money is at stake. AFSCME has, within the last year, won impressive victories for public employees by negotiation. Workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Iowa, Minnesota, New York and Connecticut won comparable worth pay adjustments in 1985, and changes will inevitably be reflected in private sector contracts as well. These are important victories for working women, and they are more solid, more permanent and more persuasive precedents because they have been won the hard way -- not by persuading a single judge or arbitrator, but by careful, time-consuming and difficult bargaining.