"Wal-Mart hammered by judge," shouted a front-page Star Tribune headline earlier this month. The Dakota County judge -- responding to a class-action assault on the giant retailer -- labeled Wal-Mart "dehumanizing" and set it up for a possible $2 billion penalty.

Many Minnesotans probably shrugged. What else is new? The story seemed consistent with charges we've heard for years: Wal-Mart exploits its workers by paying skinflint wages and skimping on health insurance. Not to mention driving legions of mom-and-pop stores out of business.

With such a reputation for ruthlessness, Wal-Mart must be struggling to find workers, right?

Yet when the company opened a new store in St. Paul's Midway area in May 2004, about 6,000 applicants vied for 325 job openings, according to Joyce Niska, the store's acting manager in 2005. That, too, was nothing new. For years, people have beaten down the doors to work at Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart's more than 1.3 million American employees aren't stupid. The company's wages and fringe benefits -- including health care coverage and retirement benefits -- are comparable to those of other retailers, according to a study by Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist.

Wal-Mart pays as well as Target, according to Chuck Denny, who analyzed the company in an April study for the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

The average wage for regular, full-time hourly Wal-Mart associates in our state is $11.30, according to Wal-Mart's website, and employees are eligible for performance-based bonuses.

And forget that tired line about dead-end jobs. Two-thirds of store managers were once hourly workers, according to the company.

Wal-Mart is the world's largest nongovernment employer, because it's the world's most popular retailer. A mind-boggling more than 100 million Americans shop there every week.

But Wal-Mart may also be the most demonized company in our country's history. For years, it has been the target of a sophisticated, orchestrated public relations campaign. That's odd, because the giant retailer has arguably done more for low-income Americans than a shopping cart full of government welfare programs.

Wal-Mart's combination of rock-bottom prices, quality and convenience -- it offers a dizzying array of household staples under one roof -- appeals strongly to shoppers who need to stretch their dollars. Estimates of the average family's annual savings from shopping at Wal-Mart range from $900 to $2,300, depending on the study you consult.

W. Michael Cox, chief economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, summed it up this way speaking to the New York Times: "Wal-Mart is the greatest thing that ever happened to low-income Americans."

Even upscale consumers who wouldn't be caught dead in a Wal-Mart store have benefited from the company's groundbreaking business strategies. Wal-Mart "has radically changed the way people buy goods and services in America," says Vedder, co-author of "The Wal-Mart Revolution: How Big-Box Stores Benefit Consumers, Workers, and the Economy."

For example, Wal-Mart pioneered the "big-box," large-scale retail model that is now a fixture of the American landscape, writes Vedder. Its efficiencies sprang not from beating down workers, but from technological and logistical innovations, including electronic data interchange and wireless barcode scanning, to streamline operations. Savings are passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices.

The ripple effects are profound. Grocery prices drop an average of 10 to 15 percent in markets that Wal-Mart has entered, according to analysts cited by the New York Times.

For these and other reasons, economists credit Wal-Mart with single-handedly increasing American productivity and substantially reducing inflation in recent years.

Today, Wal-Mart's innovations continue.

In September 2006, for example, the company began offering a month's supply of more than 300 generic drugs for $4 each -- about the cost of a gallon of milk. Chains such as Kroger's and Target responded by lowering their prices. In March, Wal-Mart announced that its new program had saved consumers $1.03 billion in about 18 months.

So why is Wal-Mart the store that many of us love to hate?

Any organization of its mammoth size is bound to have blemishes. In Minnesota, the labor law violations identified in the recent suit deserve attention and concern. But there's something more behind the vitriolic attacks on Wal-Mart.

Anti-globalization folks -- the sort who used to vilify McDonald's -- routinely denounce the company, of course. The main force behind the anti-Wal-Mart crusade, however, is organized labor. Wal-Mart isn't unionized, and the United Food and Commercial Workers has repeatedly struck out in its efforts to change that. In response, the UFCW has joined the Service Employees International Union in launching anti-Wal-Mart websites and striving to turn public opinion against the company.

Interestingly, the folks who hate Wal-Mart are often the sort who usually make a big deal about how much they care for low-income people. They make a mistake when they turn a blind eye on the achievements of this powerhouse for the poor.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.