Starbucks pours weak tea on virtual union talks

A Starbucks logo is seen at a Starbucks coffee shop in Vienna
A Starbucks logo is seen at a Starbucks coffee shop in Vienna, Austria, June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

NEW YORK, March 28 (Reuters Breakingviews) - After more than a decade of infusing its coffee with technology, Starbucks (SBUX.O) is putting a lid on one aspect of the digital transition. The $113 billion Frappuccino maker wants to negotiate with unions in person rather than allowing members to join talks by videoconference. It’s some weak tea.

Mobile orders accounted for about a quarter of transactions at U.S. stores in the latest quarter. Starbucks also became one of the first big companies to hold a virtual shareholder meeting after the pandemic struck and it hosted the annual event online again last week.

Boss Laxman Narasimhan and his predecessor Howard Schultz may see some sort of tactical edge by holding controversial discussions with unions in person, but pressing employees from nearly 300 stores to bargain live only feeds anti-labor perceptions. Embracing a hybrid model would be truer to the coffee brewer’s tech ethos and give it a way to sidestep concerns about a lack of openness. Narasimhan only answered pre-selected questions at the annual meeting, while 96% of those hosted online by Broadridge Financial Solutions last year allowed shareholders to pose them live. For a company that touts people and connections, it’s off-brand to cut off a link to them. (By Amanda Gomez)

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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