Can a staunchly conservative, heavily Republican, nonunion city government find happiness with a bold new policy championed mainly by organized labor and feminists?
"You're darn right we're happy with comparable worth," says Robert Isaac, the loyal Reaganite who is mayor of this thriving city of 250,000 at the foot of Pike's Peak.
"Some of my Republican friends back in Washington have been pretty tough on this idea," says Isaac, immediate past president of the Republican Mayors' Conference. "But I tell them, if they'd try it, they'd like it."
Some government officials and business leaders back in Washington have indeed had harsh words for the concept of "comparable worth" -- the idea that women working in traditionally female jobs should get the same pay as men in different jobs requiring comparable skill and responsibility.
Former White House economic adviser William A. Niskanen Jr. has called comparable worth "a truly crazy proposal." Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the concept is "the looniest idea since Looney Tunes."
"Yeah, I heard that," says Isaac with a shake of the head. "We wouldn't call it loony here in Colorado Springs.
"But what we had before -- where a secretary is doing a job that's just as hard and just as important as a truck mechanic, and she's getting $300 [a month] less -- now, that was loony. It's just basically unfair."
The liberal notion of comparable worth hit this conservative city four years ago. A group of 36 City Hall secretaries, all women, went before the City Council to complain that city auto mechanics, all men, were scheduled to get a much higher raise than they were.
"I was sitting at that meeting and -- boom! There was the issue," recalls Richard Zickefoose, the city's personnel director. "We didn't expect it to come up, but all of a sudden we were faced with comparable worth."
Zickefoose knew that the federal Equal Pay Act requires equal pay for the same work, regardless of the worker's gender. But the law does not apply to workers doing different jobs, no matter how "comparable" the jobs may be.
As the second-largest employer in town (the federal government is No. 1 in this military city), the city government was under minimal competitive pressure to take on the problem, and there was no public employes' union here to force the issue.
But as Zickefoose and Isaac looked into the secretaries' complaint, they came to agree that the city had no choice but to set up a comparable-worth pay scale.
"It was fundamentally a moral issue," Zickefoose says. "Sure, supply and demand would have provided us a clerical force at the lower salaries. But that market fact was a result of years of discrimination against women workers. We felt we had no right to take advantage of it."
That settled, Colorado Springs faced the problem that many critics of comparable worth consider insoluble: figuring out which jobs done mainly by women are comparable to different jobs done mainly by men.
"The question is, 'Is a secretary's job the same as a tire repairman's? Is a payroll clerk comparable to a tree trimmer?' And, sure, that's a tough question," Zickefoose says.
Colorado Springs drew its answers from the "Hay Guide-Chart Profile" devised by the Philadelphia consultants Hay & Associates. It assigns points to each job in four areas: know-how (the knowledge and skills required); problem-solving (the ingenuity required); accountability (the degree of supervision required) and working conditions (the degree of danger present).
This "Hay Scale" showed, for example, that the jobs performed by a secretarial supervisor and a probation counselor each totaled 208 points. In 1980, though, the traditionally male probation job paid $1,709 a month, while the female supervisor received $1,389. The woman earned 23 percent less for "comparable" work.
In 1981, the city committed itself to eliminating almost all of that gap in four years. The comparable-worth scheme took full effect in January. Today, the secretarial supervisor's pay is within 4 percent of the probation officer's.
The change brought considerable raises for about 500 female employes and increased the $90 million city payroll by about 2 percent -- a relatively small burden for this fast-growing, prosperous metropolis.
For this price the city earned deep appreciation from its female workers. "Morale is sky high," says Betty J. Ketterson, secretary to the public works director and one of the original 36 petitioners. "And when I need to hire somebody, our applicants are the pick of the crop."
But the government has earned the enmity of the local Chamber of Commerce and many businesses. They say the city bought a liberal bill of goods, flouted the free market and raised the pay scale for clerical workers here to astronomical levels.
Mayor Isaac, a real estate lawyer in private life, says the Chamber of Commerce should stop carping.
"We did something fair and just, and in return we got ourselves great employe morale, lower turnover and higher productivity," Isaac says. "Isn't that what the private sector's always looking for?"