The Flivver King Summary

Upton Sinclair

The Flivver King

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The Flivver King Summary

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Upton Sinclair, author of The Flivver King, was a twentieth century American writer best known for his investigative journalism, or “muckraking”—using the written word to expose flaws or scandals within a society. Upton Sinclair is particularly well known for The Jungle, his exposé on the meatpacking industry. The Flivver King focuses on the American auto industry. This novel tells the story of the industry through a single family of workers: the Schutts.

Abner Schutt spends his childhood in Detroit. One day, he runs home to his mother to announce that he heard a man proclaim he was going to “make a wagon that’ll run without a horse.” The man is, of course, Henry Ford, and the horseless wagon is an automobile. Most think that Ford is a complete lunatic, but Abner is enthralled by the idea and believes in the man. When he grows up, Abner begins working in the Ford factory, which is booming. The world no longer regards Ford as a lunatic, but as a genius inventor, and so Abner is proud to work for the Ford company. In the beginning, Abner and the other workers are paid handsome wages, as the work is difficult, complex, and requires specific training.

As time goes on, however, Ford and the other executives apply the concept of Scientific Management to the Ford factory. This theory posits that by breaking complex procedures into many simple steps, the need for skilled workers decreases. Rather than teaching one worker a complex task, they can teach four workers one simple task each, which when combined, completes the once complex task. The Ford company applies this principle and the workers become more like machine parts than people. The workers discuss the possibility of forming a union to advocate for their rights, but Abner is hesitant. He has a strong sense of loyalty towards Henry Ford (though, of course, Ford does not reciprocate this loyalty) and worries that he may lose his job for advocating a union.

Abner’s entire family becomes involved in the Ford company. His eldest son John rises to middle management. His middle son Hank engages in organized crime during Prohibition and eventually utilizes those same skills in shutting down pro-union rallies as a Ford company goon. Abner’s son Tom graduates from the University of Michigan and gets a job in the factory alongside his father. Unlike his father, who accepts the long hours, poor pay, and lack of job security, Tom rebels against factory life. As he works at the Ford gear plant, he begins to read and talk to radical people. He eventually becomes a radical himself, and a staunch Socialist. He believes that a union will protect the factory workers against a company that increasingly view them as tools rather than human beings with real needs. He begins to travel to towns where the Ford company is influential, rallying workers and trying to convince them that a union will protect them. The Ford company has started to employ spies to weed other dissidents in their rank, something that horrifies Abner. One of these spies eventually catches Tom campaigning on behalf of the emerging United Auto Workers union and reports this to corporate. The company also employs hired thugs to crush any attempts at unionization, and these thugs find and beat Tom.

In the end, Sinclair tells the reader, the UAW won the war. To this day, Ford company workers are members of the United Auto Workers union. In The Flivver King, Sinclair uses a single family to present the Ford company’s rise from obscurity, to generous employer providing a path to the middle class, to an iron-fisted institution incapable of tolerating dissent or treating workers fairly. Abner Schutt and his sons each embody a facet of the company: the loyal company man, the detached middle management, the hired thug, and the unstoppable radical.