In the continuing struggle for individual liberty, the combatants win a few and lose a few, but the struggle goes on. In recent weeks, friends of liberty won a modest victory in the Supreme Court but lost a big one in California.

Both battlegrounds involved the power of labor unions to engage in political spending without the consent of dissenting workers. The fight has been going on for more than 20 years, in and out of the federal courts. It will be resumed in the fall before the Supreme Court.The modest victory came in a suit brought by 153 pilots of Delta Air Lines. In 1991 they sued the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in a test of what is known as the "agency shop." Under federal law a union that wins a collective bargaining election must thereafter represent all the employees in a bargaining unit, whether the losers like it or not.

A string is attached. Dissenting workers may be unwilling passengers, but they are not entitled to a free ride. Under an agency shop contract, they must pay the union for the costs involved in representing them. The recurring disputes generally involve the method of calculating and exacting these agency fees.

In the Delta case, the issue was off to one side. The union charged its members monthly dues of 2.35 percent of their earnings. By its own determination, ALPA asserted that only 19 percent of the dues payments went for purposes other than collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment. Dissenters challenged the manner in which the 19 percent had been calculated. The union then unilaterally hired an arbitrator to make a nonbinding recommendation.

The dissenters objected vigorously to what they regarded as high-handed conduct by the union. They had never agreed to arbitration, nonbinding or otherwise, and they wanted no part of it. They wanted to fight it out in court. On May 26 the Supreme Court gave the dissenters that right. It was not a victory to rank with Waterloo, but friends of liberty will take whatever they can get. The high court's opinion clears some underbrush away.

The setback came on June 2 when California voters turned down Proposition 226 by a vote of 53-47 percent. The proposed law would require all employers and labor organizations "to obtain an employee's or member's permission before withholding wages or using union dues or fees for political contributions." The employee's or member's permission would have to be renewed annually.

It was a dirty fight. According to Americans for Tax Reform, California unions poured $30 million into their campaign to defeat Proposition 226. They shamelessly distorted the meaning and effect of the initiative.

Bugaboos reared their heads: The proposition would lead to privatized education and the export of American jobs; it would weaken patients' rights with health maintenance organizations.

Gullible voters swallowed this nonsense, and the proposition went down in defeat. It will be back.

The principle at the heart of these cases is immensely important. In a free society, only government has the power to take our money and spend it for its own purposes. Unions have no such authority - not when it comes to political spending. These decisions ought to be made on our own.