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The company’s workforce is not unionized, but labor unions are using political heat and other novel tactics to try to gain what they can’t bargain for at the negotiating table. That includes setting up outside groups that informally organize Wal-Mart workers and opponents on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Their goal is to try to improve the conditions of low-wage Americans and the impoverished workers in nations where the company’s suppliers provide little pay. In April, the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing or wounding more than 3,000 garment workers.

Because of Wal-Mart’s high visibility — it shook global markets this month when company officials gave a lowered outlook for earnings and sales — liberal Democrats have been using every tool they have to try to bludgeon, persuade or cajole it and other high-profile companies such as McDonald’s into raising wages and making health care benefits more widely available to workers.

Wal-Mart is “ground zero” for what’s ailing the global economy, Ms. Dehlendorf said. “It’s why workers are so passionately committed to changing things at Wal-Mart. It’s really the most important thing we can do to change the economy today.”

Labor activists have been touting a study by the liberal think tank Demos that found that if the average retail worker’s salary was raised to levels akin to those in the D.C. wage bill, it would be a boon for the economy, lifting 700,000 people out of poverty in the first year and, by increasing workers’ buying power, increasing retail sales and enabling businesses to add another 130,000 jobs. A University of California, Berkeley study showed similar results, finding dramatic potential benefits for workers from raising average wages from about $15,000 to $25,000 a year, while the cost for the typical Wal-Mart shopper would be only $12.50 more a year in higher prices on their purchases.

Wal-Mart’s pioneering role

But Wal-Mart and its allies strongly disagree with the studies, joined by many centrist Democrats who insist that the company has had a beneficial impact on the economy.

One of Wal-Mart’s strongest defenders is Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers. In a 2005 white paper responding to the liberal assaults on Wal-Mart, he urged critics to view Wal-Mart as “a progressive success story” because it is providing thousands of much-needed jobs to entry-level and unskilled workers, while offering huge savings for the lower and middle classes through significantly lower prices. He cited an IHS Global Insight study that estimated those savings at about $3,100 per household for the 60 percent of Americans who shop regularly at Wal-Mart stores.

Since its humble beginnings in Bentonville, Ark., five decades ago, Wal-Mart has transformed itself into a world retailing empire and endeared itself to free-market advocates through its much-copied discount merchandising model, providing goods from groceries to clothes and appliances with “everyday low prices.”

Wal-Mart’s pioneering concept was made possible by the large pools of unskilled workers that it was able to tap to man its stores in the U.S. and supplier factories in China and elsewhere in Asia. Taking advantage of that cheap labor, the retailer built an unprecedented chain of low-cost suppliers that made goods to order at a fraction of U.S. wage levels.

Reflecting its rural roots, Wal-Mart’s bargain prices and low-end merchandise aimed to attract a targeted clientele made up of millions of low-wage and working-class customers, a group that — ironically — has multiplied in size as Wal-Mart’s wage model was adopted by big-box retailers such as Best Buy and fast-food chains including McDonald’s.

The Furman paper points out that low-income Americans are the greatest beneficiaries of Wal-Mart’s low prices because they spend a greater share of their incomes on groceries and other necessities. He argues that such workers are better off even without higher wages because of the savings and because progressive policies put into place since the 1990s enable them to supplement their incomes with Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare benefits. Mr. Furman, in fact, argues that forcing Wal-Mart to pay higher wages would backfire by “wiping out” the company’s “razor-thin” margin of profits and killing the company along with its millions of jobs.

Template for the 21st century

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is working on a book about Wal-Mart, sees Wal-Mart as a “template” in establishing American workplace standards much like General Motors did in the 1950s. GM’s policy of paying high wages with health care benefits and pensions to workers who spent their entire careers with the company became the model for American business in the second half of the 20th century.

Mr. Lichtenstein said salary scales are at the root of Wal-Mart’s successful business model, which couples low-wage labor with state-of-the-art technology such as the bar-coding system it pioneered to keep inventories and labor costs low at its stores. With sophisticated but easy-to-use technology in place, the company can ignore demands for higher wages because it can easily replace disgruntled workers with a seemingly endless supply of others willing to work at low wages, he said in an interview with NPR.

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