“We Build Communities”: A Trip to Kentucky and Tennessee

By Senior Advisor Beth Baltzan and White House Fellow Martha Esparza, MD

Today we mark the 56th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On that day, Dr. King was in Memphis to show his support for striking sanitation workers. He recognized that economic security for working people and civil rights were two sides of the same coin. In his speech on March 18, 1968, in the spirit of solidarity, Dr. King said, “We can all get more together than we can apart.”

A message written at the entrance of the National Civil Rights Museum where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. 

One of the challenges of modernizing trade policy so that it delivers for working Americans is structural: trade agreements have been designed for decades to pit different sectors against each other. In our traditional free trade agreements, the rules tend to favor sourcing agricultural inputs from the parties to the agreement. But on the industrial side, they tend to allow more than half the contents of a product to come from countries that are not parties to the agreement.

That means trade agreements are designed to work better for one sector of our economy than the other. We are working to fix that problem through requesting public input on making our supply chains more resilient across all sectors. On March 24, 2024, our team went to Louisville and Memphis to continue to meet Americans where they are. On this trip, we focused on people caught in this zero-sum trade dynamic. In our conversations, we learned that they see themselves as part of a broader community and want our policies to serve everyone.

In Louisville, we met with Brough Brothers, a small, Black-owned independent distillery. Having lived abroad, including overseas, the brothers came back to their neighborhood in Louisville. They defied expectations by building a thriving business in an economically depressed part of town, not far from the home of the Kentucky Derby. Through their business, they are creating opportunity in areas that has been underserved. They appreciate that other companies, like steel producer Nucor, are looking to create jobs there too.

Two of the Brough brothers, USTR Senior Advisor Beth Baltzan and White House Fellow Martha Esparza stand with their products in front of the “Brough Brothers Distillery” sign at their facility in Louisville, Kentucky.

European markets are an important source of expansion for Brough Brothers. But they faced the threat of tariffs on their exports to Europe, which is why the Biden Administration acted to strike a deal with Europe so that the U.S. and EU would both act to preserve our steel and aluminum industries from China’s non-market excess capacity, all while avoiding putting restrictive tariffs on each other. That is how we are correcting for exactly the dynamic that is problematic – we know that helping one sector can threaten to create challenges for another. Still, the Brough Brothers recognize that the overarching goal of helping the steel workers they hope to see down the street when the Nucor facility is finished.

Bottles of ingredients used in the Brough Brothers distilling process on display at their distillery in Louisville.

We visited Nucor in Memphis. The facility supplies steel to manufacturers, including automotive manufacturers. Nucor recognizes the importance of job stability, has a “no layoff” practice even during tough times, and engages in annual profit-sharing with its workers. A publicly-traded company, Nucor’s approach rejects the one embodied by “Jack Welch’s barge,” which Secretary Granholm talked about in the context of a business model that focuses on little more than cost cutting. We also discussed the challenges of trying to empower our steel producers to fight unfair competition while also trying to minimize the effects for other sectors, especially our farmers. The Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act came up in the context of domestic investments that spur demand for Nucor’s products and are part of the solution. We discussed making sure that trade rules don’t undercut those investments.

Senior Advisor Beth Baltzan and White House Fellow Martha Esparza stand with workers at the Nucor facility in Memphis, Tennessee.

We also met with Doug Langley, owner of Langley Farms outside of Louisville. Mr. Langley grows crops that supply some of the distilleries in Kentucky. In his view, one of the main concerns for farmers overall is price volatility. Recognizing the challenges for domestic manufacturing, he understands the need to course correct on trade. But he hopes that the course correction can be handled in a way that doesn’t exacerbate volatility. Indeed, USTR understands that American farmers endure volatility in many aspects of their operations and prioritizes ensuring economic stability for them and their families.

Senior Advisor Beth Baltzan and farmer Doug Langley discuss agricultural trade at his farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

Bringing about greater economic security for workers and fair competition are key reasons the United States has worked with the European Union to negotiate a global green steel and aluminum deal. It would allow liberal democracies to come together so that our workers can compete fairly while pushing back on non-market policies and practices posed by other countries, like the People's Republic of China’s massive non-market excess capacity for steel and aluminum and its emissions-intensive production. We know that moving away from the old version of globalization is challenging for some of our allies, but we also believe that many of those allies, and their industries, understand the importance of preserving market-based democratic governance.

Commitment to community was also at the heart of our conversation with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 862 in Louisville. The UAW strike was a key moment in demonstrating the impact of organized labor. The Local has had to work hard to overcome the obstacles of being in a right to work state, but at this point all but three of its over 12,500 members pay dues.  The Local’s presence extends throughout the community, whether building ramps for veterans with mobility challenges, feeding hungry families, or providing prom dresses to those who can’t afford them. UAW President Shawn Fain, speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in 2023, quoted Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “[We are] caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

A sign proudly displayed at the UAW Local 862 Union Hall in Louisville, Kentucky.

On our last day in Memphis, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. In the speech Dr. King gave the night before he was assassinated he said, “We’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity... [E]ither we go up together, or we go down together... We have an opportunity to make America a better nation… I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”