By Lisa Baertlein
REUTERS - Starbucks Corp will use its ubiquitous coffee cups to tell U.S. lawmakers to come up with a deal to avoid going over the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts.
Chief Executive Howard Schultz is urging workers in Starbucks' roughly 120 Washington-area shops to write "come together" on customers' cups on Thursday and Friday, as President Barack Obama and lawmakers return to work and attempt to revive fiscal cliff negotiations that collapsed before the Christmas holiday.
Whether members of Congress actually drink in the message is another matter. While the concentration of Starbucks cafes is high in the vicinity of the White House, it's relatively low near the U.S. Capitol. Members of the House and Senate enjoy private dining facilities and many of their offices have coffee machines.
Starbucks' cup campaign aims to send a message to sharply divided politicians and serve as a rallying cry for the public in the days leading up to the January 1 deadline to avert harsh across-the-board government spending reductions and tax increases that could send the United States back into recession.
"We're paying attention, we're greatly disappointed in what's going on and we deserve better," Schultz told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The CEO said he has joined a growing list of high-powered business leaders, politicians and financial experts in endorsing the Campaign to Fix the Debt, (www.fixthedebt.org) a well-funded non-partisan group that is leaning on lawmakers to put the United States' financial house in order.
Starbucks plans to amplify its "come together" message via new and old media, including Twitter and Facebook posts, coverage on AOL's local news websites and advertisements in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
"If (the talks) do not progress, we will make this much bigger," Schultz said of the messaging campaign, which he said is voluntary for cafe employees.
Given the number of Starbucks cafes in the Washington area and the number of workers on Capitol Hill, "I wouldn't be surprised if a cup of 'come together' finds its way into the White House and into the speaker's house," Schultz said in reference to Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who are at the center of the fiscal cliff talks.
'LACK OF LEADERSHIP'
"Our political system is not functioning in a way that is representative of what the country needs," he said. "This is the one time where politics should be put aside and what we're witness to is the exact opposite."
Schultz recently led the world's biggest coffee chain through a painful but successful restructuring that returned it to growth. He is no stranger to using Starbucks as a platform to advocate for an end to the political stalemate in Washington.
During the debt ceiling debate in August 2011, he made a splash by calling for a boycott of political contributions to U.S. lawmakers until they struck a fair and bipartisan deal on the country's debt, revenue and spending.
"We are facing such dysfunction, irresponsibility and lack of leadership" less than two years after the debt ceiling crisis, Schultz said.
Washington narrowly avoided a U.S. government default, but not before down-to-the-wire wrangling prompted the country's first-ever debt rating downgrade.
"There is something so wrong that we can be here again and not have the ability to put party aside for the betterment of the country," said Schultz. "We have the same language and rhetoric. Unfortunately we aren't learning much."
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Fred Barbash in Washington; Editing by Martin Howell and Eric Beech)