Wal-Mart’s record on wages and healthcare benefits is emerging as an issue in the US November mid-term elections, driven in part by a union-backed campaign aimed at mobilising public opposition to the retailer.

This week several prominent Democrats – including Senator Joe Lieberman – have supported activists from “Wake Up Wal-Mart”, an anti-Wal-Mart campaign group backed by the UFCW grocery workers’ union, which has begun a 35-day bus tour across the US.

The retailer was also criticised this week by John Kerry, the senator and former presidential candidate, who lambasted Wal-Mart over its healthcare policies – suggesting that Democrats are becoming more prepared to attack the retailer to galvanise popular support on the broad social and economic issues raised by the largest private employer in the US.

Chris Kofinis, the communications director of Wake Up Wal-Mart, says the group’s bus tour is expected to be endorsed by two other potential Democratic presidential candidates: John Edwards, Mr Kerry’s running mate in 2004, and Thomas Vilsack, the governor of Iowa.

The bus tour was timed to put Wal-Mart’s record on the mid-term agenda, he says. “Absolutely, it’s timed for that,” he said. “When we have elections, there’s a natural increase in the awareness of ordinary Americans over issues such as wages and healthcare.”

The union that launched the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign last year has abandoned attempts to unionise the retailer’s stores and is attempting to slow its expansion and seek legislation forcing it to raise healthcare standards and pay higher wages.

The campaign is led by a former Democratic political operative, Paul Blank, who worked on Howard Dean’s unsuccessful bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 2004. It is also supported by Democracy for America, the group founded by Mr Dean to maintain the internet-based grassroots network created during his campaign.

Last year, in response to criticisms of its healthcare provision for its 1.3m workers, Wal-Mart announced changes that included extending medical cover to the families of part-time workers. The retailer maintains that its pay and benefits are better than average in the low-pay retail sector. It has also set up its own support group, Working Families for Wal-Mart, headed by Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and first black US ambassador to the United Nations, under President Jimmy Carter.

Mr Young put out a statement saying it was wrong for politicians concerned about healthcare issues to make Wal-Mart the focus of attacks, saying they were “leading America in the wrong direction”.

The anti-Wal-Mart coalition has scored two recent victories at city and state level: last week’s vote by the city of Chicago to set a minimum wage for big retailers in the city, and a bid by Mary­land to require the retailer to increase its spending on healthcare benefits.

But a campaign focusing on the group could be tricky for some – including Senator Hillary Clinton, who served in the 1990s on the board of the retailer, based in her husband’s home state of Arkansas.

Robert Borosage, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, said Wal-Mart’s evident popularity with potential Democratic voters also raised questions for the party. “Wal-Mart’s a very popular store. And so political people are wary about it.”

But he said the chain provided a clear example of the way “the balance of power is skewed against workers”.

“This is the beginnings of what will be a quite vigorous debate going into the 2008 presidential election.”

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