Upton Sinclair`s The Flivver King
The Great Depression in of 1929 still remains in the world’s memory as one of the most devastating events not only in the United States Economy. Its echoing impact around the world challenged economic liberalism and gave rise to Keynesian economics. Upton Sinclair, in his book The Flivver King, points out that the Great Depression also created the stage for social injustice and labor abuse in the United States (158). Sinclair describes that unwise monetary policies and the economic manipulation of big businesses is the reason why the economy burst on itself: its rapid and uncontrolled expansion collapsing because of the lack of fiscal and monetary policies to support its growth.
The debt level, inflation, decline in trade and money supply issues drove the US economy to its limits, just like a balloon with too much air (28 – 32).
Sinclair’s two main characters, Henry Ford and Abner Shutt, provide the perspective of businesses and workers on how the Great Depression changed the landscape labor and employment.
Sinclair early on establishes that the relationship between Ford is not just is not just one of boss and employee. The first scene where the two are mentioned related how the young Shutt informed his mother of “a feller down the street says he’s goin’ to make a wagon that’ll run without a hoss” (4). The anecdote reflects not just the awe and drive of American industrialization but also the classic American Dream.
The book’s treatment of the Great depression and the rise unionization is covers a significant number of years in American history. It starts with the growth of industrialization and capitalism in the country to the capital crisis in the 1930’s. Sinclair reflects how America as land of opportunity became more a place for cutthroat competition. The ramifications of the World War I to Americans, migration of labor and the decline of the United Kingdom and Europe in world economics were also important factors considered in the course of the book
The Flivver King is a deliberate effort to promote unionization. Therefore, the work should be seen in the context of its motivation. Even the popularity of its book has been more due to the efforts of the United Auto Workers rather than conscious and active by those who first acquired it in 1937. The book is a critique on Henry Ford’s life, his role in American society and his visions for the future of the America. Ford is used to symbolize the aspirations and dreams of a young nation struggling to establish itself on the world but also represents the distortion of the same dreams and aspirations.
The government sponsored New Deal addressed what the government saw as the excessive influence and liberalness of the business sector the led to the Great Depression. In effect, the government tried to rein in the runaway US economy by implementing stringent fiscal and monetary controls on it. Aside from more regulations, businesses also had to deal with higher taxation, controlled pricing and unionization. Ford, together with other businesses, suffered narrower profit margins and at the same time had to take up greater responsibility for socialized care and support. People like Abner Shutt were the primary concern of the New Deal programs.
Government wanted to increase their buying power and in effect increase spending and rebuild the economy (37-41). The encouragement of government of labor unions was designed to give them greater bargaining power to push up wages and improve their quality of life. The unions were to monitor pay levels and improve working conditions. It was supposed to ensure that safety regulations were developed, and standardized, child labor was abolished, and work day and work week were shortened and lobby for non-wage benefits. The publication of the book coincides with the Recession of 1937 in the United States. As production in the industry severely dropped, it dragged profit ratios and unemployment conditions with it.
However, many workers in the United States did not reap the rewards of these efforts. As business felt greater pressure, they economized on labor. Sinclair wrote his book against the “lies enthroned and ruling the world”. Little had changed regarding the welfare of workers: business men like Ford developed contrary attitude regarding compensation and workers’ rights. Sinclair believed that without labor unions, workers will not have the bargaining power to make companies recognize their needs or the chance to escape the “vicious cycle” that keeps them marginalized and oppressed (227-234). The New Deal soured on workers because it created a struggle for business profits and the government’s social support programs.
Sinclair presents an underlying reason for the deterioration of labor relations. He presents that industrialization itself contributed to the diminished regard for workers. Technology developed machinery that was deemed more efficient and easier to manage than workers. The industrialization of America in the early years of the 20th century was supposed to be the country’s flagship, its pride and means of asserting itself in the economics of the world. The irony is that industrialization eventually stopped the country in its tracks and forced it to rethink its character as a nation and its treatment of the workers who make up its backbone. The reference Ford as “king” is not just to indicate his ownership or authority. Sinclair implies that such a status also expects subservience from workers (229-232). It should be noted that Ford began as a visionary and poster boy for the American dream. However, as he became “king”, there was greater the need for him to assert the sovereignty of his kingdom. Like any monarch, he has to have absolute power otherwise his rule becomes undermined. In such a scenario, the Shutts of the kingdom must remain in the service of the king, working for his vision, interests and goals.
The statement that “A company that deserves a union gets one” is not absolute but it is undeniable that it can greatly influence workers to organize unions. Leadership is a powerful motivator. Bad leadership can trigger unwanted responses in the workforce causing them to form defensive groups that may be having an attitude range of indifference to hostility. Confidence in management allows for open communication channels facilitating the discussion and resolution of concerns or disputes. As the relationship between workers worsened, workers turned to unions more despite efforts neither by the company’s Ford Motor Company Social Department nor by the more forceful efforts of Ford executive Harry Bennett’s Service Department. As reflected in the contrasting concept of loyalty among the company’s workers.
In conclusion, Sinclair points out that the Great Depression made workers even more disadvantaged against business’ desire for profits. When Ford began his enterprise, he believed the importance of workers’ welfare. Abner Shutt believed that the company cared about his welfare but by the time the book was written, neither Ford nor Shutt’s children could put stock to the sentiment. On the cover of the original publication of the work in 1937, two important questions regarding the money Ford and his company earned: “What has his billion dollars made of him?” and “What has the billion dollars done to them?” (1). These questions continue to be the fundamental questions that are asked in labor disputes. The important question to be answered is not who gets what but rather whether what’s one deserves is given to him.
Sincliar, Upton. The Flivver King. Chicago: Charles H. Herr Publishing, 2001
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