Labor Day was initially conceived as a day to honor the guy in the pits, the girl at the sewing machine, and the working stiffs toiling in awful conditions in order to put food on the table for their families. At the time it was conceived in the late nineteenth century, many workers were working in dangerous or body breaking conditions for as little as the business owners could get away with. There were no pensions, no health care plans, and no representation for the worker in financial considerations of the business. The union movement was building up to address the issues. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City by the members of the Central Labor Union and Oregon was the first to pass legislation to make it a statewide holiday in 1887.
Nowadays, the image of a union is not very positive. Contracts negotiated in the past in the auto industry are now hobbling the big manufacturers, especially General Motors. Teachers' unions appear to favor a system of seniority, keeping teachers that no longer teach effectively while paying more effective teachers less than what they deserve. Transit strikes extract the ire of commuters and government union pensions suck budgets dry. The high wages that unions have been able to obtain have raised the cost of labor so that we cannot compete with low wage countries like China and India. That is what we see in the news.
While there are many complex issues out there related to unions, remember that the labor movement brought to the average working man things we now take for granted: a 40-hour work week; pensions; health care coverage; a means of arbitrating safer working conditions; minimum wage and overtime wage provisions; child labor laws. You don't have to belong to a union to garner good benefits.
Today's workplace is more and more geared toward service-related industries. While some jobs don't have the danger factor like coal mining or steel working, the hours that are demanded to maintain efficiency wear people down. Ask anyone who is a supervisor in an office how they are paid and chances are they're salaried. It means that regardless of how long you're working in a day there, you're paid the same. This is something you see in the computer industry amongst engineers and programmers.
I count myself fortunate that I'm in a good paying job with excellent benefits. I've worked in jobs that didn't have those things. So this Labor Day as you're noshing on barbecue raise your cup in a toast to the working men and women who stepped up to bring to us a better life. They were more than the men and women with smudged faces. They were also the people outside of the working poor who believed in a greater good for all when the working man is treated with dignity.