FOR years, school cafeteria workers in Everett, Mass., regarded themselves as "very quiet ladies" and "just ordinary people." Day after day they prepared lunches for several thousand students. They had excellent employment records. They liked the children. And they didn't mind the hard work, which included lifting heavy cases of food, standing over steam tables, and taking apart slicers and other large machinery to clean.
But week after week, they did mind the modest paychecks they took home - checks that were almost half the amount paid to the all-male custodial staff. They also minded what they perceived as a lack of respect from school officials.
And so in 1989, those "very quiet ladies," who thought they "didn't have any backbone," took a courageous step. Never mind that most were in their 50s and 60s, and that many were widows. They filed a class-action suit against the school system, charging pay inequity. In the first test of a state law mandating similar pay for comparable work, they sought the same pay as male custodians.
The city's attorney argued that the jobs weren't comparable because custodians work longer hours and need more strength. But in a precedent-setting decision this month, a superior court judge ruled that the women were entitled to the same wages as custodians, because they performed "substantially comparable" work. The ruling entitles them to back pay.
Pay equity has received little public attention in recent years as reproductive issues have eclipsed economic issues for women. But gender-based wage differences remain common. Some can never be resolved by the courts because they involve different businesses, as in the case of child-care workers who earn less than parking-lot attendants. But when employers do equalize pay for jobs requiring comparable skills and responsibilities, women's economic prospects improve.
Last spring, Virginia Commonwealth University increased the salaries of female professors to bring them in line with their male counterparts. The changes came after a survey showed that female professors at the school averaged almost $2,000 less than male professors during the 1990-91 school year.
American women now earn 71 cents for every dollar men earn. That represents an increase of 11 cents between 1980 and 1990 - about a penny a year. At that rate it will be nearly 2020 before working women achieve economic parity with men. A national bipartisan poll last December found that more than three-quarters of American voters would support a law requiring pay equity for jobs that demand the same level of responsibilities and skills, even if the occupations are different. But polls are one thing. Act ual practice is another.
Last week a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that Lucky Stores Inc. discriminated against nearly 10,000 female employees in its northern California supermarkets. Women were routinely given jobs that paid less and offered little chance for promotion. "Sex discrimination was the standard operating procedure at Lucky," the judge ruled.
Cases like these go beyond simple justice and fairness for women. Every time a worker - male or female - is underpaid, family members pay a price too. For single breadwinners and their children, the lost income can have particularly harsh consequences. Last year there were nearly 6 million single working mothers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Two million of them earned only $10,000 to $20,000 in 1990. If all the election-year talk about getting poor women off welfare a nd into the work force is to become a reality, recipients must be able to earn a living wage.
From Massachusetts, where the cafeteria workers' settlement will cost the blue-collar town of Everett $1.5 million, to California, where Lucky supermarkets might owe tens of millions in back pay, the message to employers is clear: Discriminate against women at your peril.
The cafeteria workers hope their victory will give other women courage to follow their lead. Class-action suits are one solution. But it would be even better if employers would take the initiative in making wages equitable. They could increase a lot of salaries for the price of a single prolonged court case.