NEW YORK - Starbucks, which has faced criticism over its opposition to union organizing, wants to be "a different kind of company" that cares for its frontline workers, new CEO Laxman Narasimhan told employees on Thursday before the coffee chain's annual meeting.

In a letter to its workers, Narasimhan said Starbucks' performance is strong but the company needs to strengthen its health. "We must care for" customer-facing staff, he wrote.

"We strive to be a different kind of company operating in a different kind of world," he said, adding the company plans to "reinvigorate" its employee culture.

Narasimhan, who joined the company in October, took over on Monday as Howard Schultz stepped down from his third stint as CEO of the chain he helped turn into a global coffee behemoth.

Narasimhan - who will keep working as a barista a half day each month – must contend with the company's divisive record on labor unions, an issue of increasing concern to politicians and shareholders.

The company has said it complies with U.S. labor law. It accuses the union failing to bargain in good faith and the National Labor Relations Board of running unfair elections that favored the union.

Investors will vote Thursday on a shareholder proposal for an independent review of Starbucks' practices on union organizing and collective bargaining. Schultz is scheduled to testify next week before a U.S. Senate committee on the topic.

Since late 2021, workers at more than 290 U.S. corporate-owned locations have voted to unionize. Unionized employees say the company illegally retaliated against union organizers with firings and store closures.

Hundreds of pro-union baristas and supporters protested outside Starbucks' Seattle headquarters on Wednesday, according to Starbucks Workers United and video on social media.

Chanting and carrying signs reading "seize the beans of production" and "be kind to your workers," baristas urged the company to increase staffing and schedule the workers for more hours so they could qualify for health insurance benefits.

"Stop union busting and show up to the bargaining table," barista Hailey Cribbs from Bellingham, Washington, told the rally.

Starbucks workers also walked off the job at 100 stores around the United States on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)