Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Henry Ford as "The Fliivver King" -- Upton Sinclair

The Flivver King
            In 1937 Henry Ford’s mass production methods, subsequent Prussification of the Ford Motor Company, and the everyday lives of his workers received a pointed social critique by Upton Sinclair. Reflective of the desperation of the working class during the depths of the Great Depression and penned in the tradition of Oil and The Jungle, Sinclair’s The Flivver King: The Story of Ford America, portrayed Henry Ford as a despot possessing both a benevolent and oppressive streak. Sinclair’s central character was not Henry Ford, however, but the “everyman” Abner Shutt. Shutt experienced many of the vicissitudes typical of those working in the early automobile industry. He began his career as a machinist for the Perfection Tool Company, but left because he had no opportunities for promotion. Abner personally approached Henry Ford and asked for a job. He was put to work immediately. As Sinclair recounted, “Abner Shutt became a cog in the machine which had been conceived in the brain of Henry Ford,” and Ford was “going to the thinking, not merely for himself, but for Abner.”58 Abner was responsible for several tasks on the assembly line: he would roll two wheels at a time to a nearly finished car, push each wheel on the axle and with a wrench screw on the “spindle nut.” Additionally, he placed an alarm-bell and a lantern on the front of each car, finally carrying cushion seats to the car where he wiped the dust from them. For his work, Abner was paid seventeen and a half cents per hour. Sinclair concluded “What more could a workingman ask for?’59
            After Abner had mastered several assembly tasks, he worked up the courage to recommend to Mr. Ford the formation of a wheels department. His suggestion was well received, since it came at a time when Ford and his engineering associates were making process improvements. Soon two labor gangs were formed – one for the right wheel and another for the left. Abner was rewarded by a promotion to sub-foreman and a specialist in spindle nut-screwing. He was paid two dollars and seventy-five cents per day to make sure four men screwed nuts correctly. With the advent of the assembly line in 1913, Abner kept his sub-foreman position but now oversaw, “a group of men, whose every motion had been calculated by an engineer.”60
            Shortly thereafter, Ford’s implementation of the five dollar, 8 hour day marked a high point in his benevolent paternalism. After agents of the Sociological Department instructed the Shutts on proper domestic practices, Abner had “qualified” to receive the bonuses. Sinclair wrote, “it passed Abner’s comprehension how any man or woman could fail to be grateful for such divine compassion on the part of Mr. Ford.”61 However, when Ford promulgated the five dollar-a-day the price of rent and goods rose and all gains were nullified.
            While war raged in Europe, “It had occurred to Abner . . . that it would be a nice thing to buy a Ford Car, and take the family for an outing in the country on Sundays.”62 With a new home and a new car, Abner’s family was plunged into modernity. His wages rose to eight dollars and a quarter a day.63 At the height of Ford’s benevolence, Henry and his workers sought the same end, to win World War I, and “thanks to the efforts of Abner and Henry, America won the war.”64 From 1914 to 1920, Abner drove his Model T to work and gave fellow workers rides for a nickel each way. Later, Abner embodied the mythical common American man:  he raised his family, went to church, and even joined the Ku Klux Klan.
            Prompted by a harsh recession in 1921 and 1922, Ford shut down his plant and “reorganized.” As Sinclair recounted, “Abner Shutt had been watching the work of five men, but now one foreman watched the work of twenty men – and Abner was one of the twenty . . . they put him back on the line.”65 Now Abner was victim of the division of labor, and a chassis came to him with the spindle nuts screwed on. It was his job to put in a cotter-pin and spread it. After twenty-two years of service, a straw-boss who had been on the job for two years “rode” old Abner Shutt.
            While Henry Ford had argued that the purpose of scientific management was to discover how much work each worker could do without strain, the “speed-up” and the “stretch-out” strained Abner’s body to the limit. Sinclair described the now-divergent lives of Abner and Ford: “He [Ford] was going everywhere and doing everything except watching the assembly line of his huge factory . . . With 200,000 slaves making themselves parts of machines – pick-up, push-in, turn, reverse – pick-up, push-in, turn, reverse, pickuppushinturnreverse, pickuppushinturnreverse.”66 Abner was one of 100,000 men laid off when Ford decided to build the River Rouge Plant. Five months later, the plant was completed and Abner Shutt was back at spindle-nut screwing, the work that he understood.

            When the Depression worsened, Abner was laid off and later fired. S. S. Marquis had been replaced by Harry Bennett, Sinclair commenting that the transition was like “casting out Christ and putting Caesar in his place.” Later Abner got a job as a supply runner at the Ford factory where his son was a machinist. In 1932, Abner marched with autoworkers on Ford’s plant, but after bullets were fired, he quickly fled. In an act of desperation, he wrote a letter to Mrs. Ford, and a service agent investigated his file. Due to his long service with the Ford Motor Company, Abner received a job inserting small screws on the magneto assembly line two days a week, for $8. He kept this position for the rest of the novel, but alienation and destruction came to fruition in Abner’s family. John, his son, suffered the same fate as his father – out of work and deeply in debt. Abner’s second son Hank became a rum-runner and then worked in the Ford Service Department. His daughter Daisy went to college to become a stenographer with the hopes of working in an office and marrying a rich man. She married a bookkeeper, the Depression hit, and Sinclair coldly observed that “when poverty comes in at the door, love flies out at the window.”67 Abner’s son Tom, a star high school quarterback, shunned sports for a college education at the University of Michigan. After Tom was radicalized by academe, he chose to work in the shops organizing unions. The novel ends with Tom being systematically beaten by Henry Ford’s thugs. Sinclair morosely observed that, “From the lottery wheel of life, some boys draw lucky years and grow up in times of peace and have a chance for happy lives…others grow up to find its war time; they are dragged from their homes, marched into battle, and shot to pieces.”68


  1. Thank you for this lovely summary.

  2. He began his career as a machinist for the Perfection Tool Company, but left because he had no opportunities for cover