Industrialization and the birth of labor unions

The world's petrochemical future began with the first rickety oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859. Cars didn't exist yet, but kerosene made from petroleum oil burned brighter than the expensive whale oil that had been the only thing used in lamps since before the days of Moby-Dick. The oil business was off to a good start; within a few years, kerosene was the fourth-leading export of the United States.

Slowly, American products begin to show up all over the world. Among the first to arrive were five-gallon kerosene cans from the Standard Oil Co. The growth in industry was trailed by a growth in labor unions. The National Labor Union was formed just after the Civil War and helped to win the first eight-hour working day, initially just for federal government employees. Workers in the period after the Civil War were often made to work ten or more hours a day, six days a week, without overtime.

By 1872, labor unions had hundreds of thousands of members, and more than 30 national unions represented typesetters, hat-makers, cobblers, and other skilled craftspeople. Business depressions in the 1870s and the inability of unions to raise wages while profits were shrinking caused the union movement to lose momentum for a while. In the 1870s, a new national union coalition called the Knights of Labor gained strength. The Knights tried to unite all laboring men behind a program of worker-owned stores; health and safety regulations; and, most important, the eight-hour working day (which didn't become standard until the 1900s).


Older U.S. history texts (and some older U.S. history teachers) may not pay enough attention to the labor-, women's-, and minority-rights movements that the politically up-to-date AP U.S. History exam expects you to know. Don't get caught short. Because this exam gets you the college credit you want, take this opportunity to memorize some key names and dates from the evolving history of people's movements. Progress is like a dance between the leaders and the people: Sometimes the rulers lead; sometimes the people do.

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