Wal-Mart has a reputation to protect: its legendary, bare-knuckled labor tactics.
That's why the world's largest retailer has threatened to scrap at least three of six stores planned for the nation's capital if the city signs into law a bill requiring big-box stores to pay workers at least $12.50 an hour. Six other retailers have jumped on board, sending a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray that warned, "Any future plans for retail expansion in the city must be revisited."
It's a showdown labor experts predict will be repeated in other cities, as cash-strapped municipalities try to pare back public assistance for the working poor and large retailers look to America's cities for future growth.
Proponents of the wage bill, formally called the Large Retailer Accountability Act, call Wal-Mart a bully.
"They are known to be quite resolute, willing to take local losses in order to maintain a reputation," said Gary Burtless, labor economist at the Brookings Institution. "It would be a huge blow to that negotiating stance if they ceded to demands from the District of Columbia."
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, agreed: "If they're seen to just be making idle threats after they've built up such a reputation, that would be a huge cost to them."
(Read more: Wal-Mart to pull out of D.C. after minimum-wage vote)