KEITH HOELLER IS a philosophy instructor who teaches about 12 courses every academic year at Tacoma Community College and Auburn Community College. To do that, the North Seattle resident has to drive his 1991 Nissan Sentra -- which already has about 200,000 miles on it -- about 25,000 miles a year.

With such a demanding schedule, you might think Hoeller is bringing in the big bucks. Think again. Officially, he is a "part-time" instructor, and he gets paid a measly $2,000 a class. That's $24,000 a year. "And I'm not getting any reimbursement for gas mileage or depreciation on my car," he adds.

As Hoeller and other part-time teachers head back to classes this fall, they know they are getting screwed by the system. Despite a 3 percent pay raise from the state for this year and next year, part-time faculty on average are now making only 53 percent, hour for hour, of what their full-time teaching colleagues are making.

The problem, Hoeller says, is that community and technical colleges have for years been getting away with using underpaid part-time workers instead of hiring more full-time instructors. "What's driving the system is not quality," he says. "It's just that you can teach three times as many classes using part-timers." The colleges are relying on the inherent disorganization among part-time teachers to continue this system, Hoeller says.

But part-time faculty are beginning to fight back. In Olympia, Hoeller and a grassroots group called the Part-Time Faculty Association are pressing for equitable pay with their full-time peers. In the state courts, two separate groups of part-time instructors have filed two class action lawsuits against the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

Here's the main gripe about compensation: Teaching involves more than just showing up and giving an impromptu speech for an hour. Some teachers estimate that they spend twice as much time preparing for class as they do teaching the material. Yet they can't bill the college for that extra time spent. Full-time faculty members have salaried positions that factor those extra duties in. But not part-timers.

"We're fooling ourselves if we think we can just walk into the classroom and teach," says Jack Longmate, who teaches English as a Second Language at Olympic College in Bremerton. "Responsible teaching involves meeting with students, preparing tests, grading papers. Yet we're only paid for showing up in class."

College administrations are evidently taking advantage of this group. Part-time teachers make up the backbone of the faculty structure at technical and community colleges (and at most universities, as well). For example, in the Seattle Community College District, which includes North Seattle Community College, Seattle Central Community College, and South Seattle Community College, there are 350 full-time faculty and 850 part-time faculty. That's an overwhelming 71 percent. And, the Washington Federation of Teachers points out, at some campuses, part-timers actually teach half the classes.

Earl Hale, the director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, says he would like to pay part-time instructors more. He would also like to create more full-time positions at community colleges statewide. The problem, as always, is financial. "The issue is money," he says.

Too much work and too little respect -- that's a big reason two groups of part-time teachers slapped down two class-action lawsuits in King County Superior Court against the state education system. Neither suit has reached the trial stage yet.

One suit, involving 15 part-time teachers, seeks wages for all the work part-time teachers never get paid for, like course development and correcting homework and tests. The suit claims that in some instances part-time instructors are making less than minimum wage for their work.

The other class-action suit revolves around retirement benefits. Just like the perma-temp battle at Microsoft, workers are trying to lay claim to benefits they feel they deserve. College administrators told the part-time teachers that, in order to be eligible for pensions, their hours needed to equal at least 80 percent of the work a full-time employee puts in. The lawyers of three part-time teachers, however, say federal law is clear: Part-time teachers only have to work over 50 percent of a full-time load to collect benefits.

"I never realized there was any recourse," says Ross Day, a furniture designer who teaches his craft at both Bellevue Community College and Seattle Central Community College. Day joined two other teachers in the suit because he was angered by the apparent lack of appreciation he was receiving for the time he gave teaching.

Hoeller understands Day's indignation. That's why he started the Part-Time Faculty Association. He's been urging part-time teaching colleagues to do everything they can to press the issue: Send e-mails and letters to state representatives. Call them. Leave voice mail messages.

The effort hasn't been easy. Part-time faculty are hard to reach because they are rarely given office space (or a phone). They are often on the move, teaching and holding down other jobs to make ends meet. "It's not terribly easy getting people together," says Doug Collins, a part-time teacher at South Seattle Community College. "There's fear because of a lack of job security, and it's hard pinning somebody down when they have to rush off to a community college to put together more hours."

Plus, Hoeller has worked without much help from the big teachers' unions, whose bread and butter are the full-timers. "It was just easier for us to form our own group," Hoeller says. Indeed, critics say the Washington Education Association and the Washington Federation of Teachers merely pay lip service to addressing part-time faculty issues.

"They [the unions] would have sold him out every time," says State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, who worked with Hoeller to win a small pay increase for part-timers. "They negotiate what's good for the full-timers inside the unions." Jacobsen adds that during the salary negotiations at the legislature, "[part-time] issues got short shrift."