THIS IS THE day when the country officially honors work -- an institution that Americans respect, revere, rhapsodize about and are, as a nation, seeking to retire from at an increasingly early age. That they're doing so isn't as much a contradiction as it is an inevitable consequence of the wealth produced by a (mostly) steadily growing economy that has, in the latter half of this century, provided many working people not only with a taste of prosperity but with enough additional leisure to make them want to take it up full-time.

Of course, the affluence of the American worker is often overstated -- and for great numbers of people still something of a mirage. But there are enough three-car garages, boats, golf bags and riding mowers in the neighborhoods of the nation's wage slaves to make it clear that class struggle has come a long way since the days when Walter and Victor Reuther were getting their heads cracked while bravely organizing Detroit's auto workers.

At the same time, even in this high-tech, low-unemployment economy, a lot of jobs continue to be stressful, tiresome, exhausting, difficult and often dangerous. In this regard, a photo exhibit that opened last week at the Labor Department and runs through Sept. 17 might help counteract overly gauzy views of the modern world of work. The photographs by Earl Dotter, taken over the past 25 years, show people doing all the arduous everyday things that few of us give sufficient notice (as little as we give the thousands of industrial deaths that still occur every year): washing high windows, running a snowplow in a northern storm, digging tunnels, mining coal.

"When you put a real individual in the photo, it resonates and gets us away from putting numbers on people's lives and their health and safety," Mr. Dotter says. That's a good prescription not only for a photographic exhibit but for a better appreciation of all the people who go to work in this country every day whether they feel like it or not -- putting real people in the picture.