Updated 2:10 p.m. ET Friday
After the death of George Floyd, Google engineer Raksha Muthukumar sent an email to colleagues.
In it, she pointed to a list of criminal justice reform groups and bail funds for protesters who were seeking contributions. Soon after, Muthukumar was summoned into a meeting with Google's human relations department.
"I remember that was such a scary experience. It was such a mysterious HR letter. And I was texting friends who had been involved with organizing and they were like, 'Oh, this is my experience with HR. This is what has happened. Don't forget to take notes on it,'" said Muthukumar, 25, who is based in New York City.
She says she was told that a colleague was offended by her email. One of the pages she referred to did indeed contain harsh language to describe police. Still, she never expected the matter to land on the radar of higher ups.
"It just seemed like such a neutral thing, sending a little GoFundMe list," Muthukumar said. "And that got me in trouble."
From a stern talking-to from HR to being demoted or forced out after speaking out, stories about bristling tensions between Google workers and executives have consumed the tech giant in recent months.
And it was against this backdrop that Muthukumar and several hundred of her colleagues did something this week rarely seen in Silicon Valley: they formed a labor union.
Called the Alphabet Workers Union, after Google's parent company, it now represents more than 600 Google employees and contractors with the support of the Communications Workers of America.
Unlike traditional unions, this group is a so-called "minority union" and does not have the power to force the company to collectively bargain over pay and benefits. But organizers say that is not the point. This movement, they say, is to examine Google's role in society and help reshape the company's culture.
"The fear of retaliation has always been great and we've seen retaliation, so this is our chance to protect ourselves," Muthukumar said.
Already, the union is exerting its influence. After Facebook announced it would indefinitely ban Trump, and Twitter temporarily suspended the president's account for several hours, the Google union lambasted their bosses for not doing enough.
Google-owned YouTube did remove a video address in which Trump circulates election falsehoods and glorifies the violent rioters who swarmed the Capitol.
The actions were "lackluster," the Google union wrote.
"We warned our executives about this danger, only to be ignored or given token concessions," the union said. "YouTube will continue to function as a vector for the growth of fascist movements if it persists in prioritizing advertisers while exposing the public."
Challenging the 'massive power' of Google executives
For the past year, organizers say, workers at Google have been quietly plotting a way to organize the company, with plans of launching later this year.
But the union sped up its timeline after the abrupt firing in December of prominent Black researcher Timnit Gebru, who co-led a team examining the ethics of artificial intelligence technologies. Gebru was also a vocal critic of the company's diversity efforts, and the first Black woman to be a research scientist at Google.
More than 2,600 of Gebru's former colleagues signed a public letter denouncing Google's ouster of Gebru — which the company insists was a resignation. The incident reignited worker fury against top executives, underscoring the need for a way to speak out without the fear of reprisal, according to union organizers.
"There is massive power that has been concentrated at the executive level," said Alan Morales, a Google engineer who is now a member of the union. "As a tech employee, it's a reasonable ask to ensure that this labor is being used for something positive that makes the world a better place."
The union is a symptom of a larger shift at Google, where the median pay is around $200,000. For years, employees were reluctant to publicly criticize the company.
That began to change in 2018, when 20,000 Google workers around the world staged a walkout to protest how the company handled sexual harassment claims. Others more recently have openly questioned some of Google's work, like selling technology to U.S. border agents and the military. And accounts of how women and people of color receive different treatment at the company have circulated widely since Gebru's firing.
All of this, says Chris Benner, professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, helped build the momentum for Google's union.
"It shows that broader concerns about growing income and wealth inequality in our society, and unfair labor practices, are now being shared by some of the most well-paid employees in the tech industry," said Benner, who has long studied the tech sector. "I would not be surprised if we saw more of this in Silicon Valley in the coming year."
Former Google executive: Union could damage company's image
Google officials declined to be interviewed about the union.
But Kara Silverstein, the director of Google's People Operations, said in a statement that the company has always "worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace" and that it will "continue engaging directly with all our employees."
That statement "struck me as an example that they really don't get it," Ross LaJeunesse, a former Google executive, told NPR.
Until 2019, LaJeunesse was the global head of the company's international relations. He says he was forced out of Google for raising objections about working with the governments of China and Saudi Arabia, saying such business ventures would make the company "complicit in human rights violations."
Google disputes his firing was retaliatory, claiming LaJeunesse lost his job due to company reorganization.
LaJeunesse says he believes upper management is likely worried the new union will damage Google's image at a time when public opinion is turning against Big Tech.
"First thing that Google executives will be concerned about is potential damage to the brand and the PR efforts the company constantly undertakes," he said.
LaJeunesse said the union's creation is proof that company executives have failed to engage directly with growing calls for reform from some of the company's rank and file, and that the distrust sowed between employees and management could hurt the company in the long term.
"Really, this should be an alarm to investors and to the Board," LaJeunesse said. "I think there's a real risk of that talent going elsewhere."
Editor's note: Google is among NPR's financial supporters.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Hundreds of Google employees did something this week that is rare in Silicon Valley. They formed a labor union. Some of them talked to NPR's Bobby Allyn about why. And I should note, Google is a financial supporter of NPR.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: After the death of George Floyd, Google engineer Raksha Muthukumar sent an email to colleagues. It included a list of criminal justice reform groups and bail funds for protesters. Soon after, Muthukumar was summoned into a meeting with Google's HR department.
RAKSHA MUTHUKUMAR: And I remember that was, like, such a scary experience. It was such a mysterious HR letter. And I was, like, texting friends who had been involved in organizing. And they were like, oh, this is my experience with HR. This is what's happened. Don't forget to, like, take notes on it.
ALLYN: She was told that a colleague was offended by her email. One of the fundraisers had used harsh language to describe police. But she wasn't expecting it to land on the radar of higher ups.
MUTHUKUMAR: It just seemed like the most neutral thing, sending, like, a little GoFundMe list. And that got me in trouble in some way.
ALLYN: A talking to from HR, being demoted or pushed out of the company after speaking out, these are the stories that have consumed Googlers for months. And it set the stage for Muthukumar and several hundred colleagues to form the Alphabet Workers Union, named after Google's parent company.
MUTHUKUMAR: The fear of retaliation has always been great. And we've seen retaliation. So this is our chance to protect ourselves.
ALLYN: Google employees enjoy cushy salaries and company perks. They've long kept their heads down. But that is changing. The union has been quietly in the works for a year, a year in which some employees have stepped forward to accuse Google of discrimination. Others have openly questioned some of Google's work, like selling technology to U.S. border agents and the military. But what really galvanized the movement was the ouster of prominent Black researcher Timnit Gebru, which thousands of Googlers publicly denounced in an open letter. Alan Morales is a Google engineer who also joined the union.
ALAN MORALES: There is massive power that has been concentrated at the executive level. And as a tech employee, it's a very reasonable ask to, you know, ensure that, actually, this labor is being used for something positive that makes the world a better place.
ALLYN: The union's members are a tiny fraction of Google's 200,000-some employees and contractors. This union is distinct because it's not seeking collective bargaining power, just a way to influence the company's decisions. In a statement, Google said the company has always, quote, "worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace," saying it will, quote, "continue engaging directly with all our employees."
ROSS LAJEUNESSE: That just struck me as an example that they really don't get it.
ALLYN: Ross LaJeunesse is a former Google executive. Until 2019, he headed the company's international relations but says he was forced out for promoting human rights in China. He says top executives are likely worried the union will hurt Google's image at a time when public opinion is turning against big tech.
LAJEUNESSE: The first thing that the Google executives will be concerned about is potential damage to the brand and to the PR efforts that the company constantly undertakes,
ALLYN: LaJeunesse says the union shows that company brass haven't directly engaged with growing calls for reform from some of the company's rank and file. That, he says, could hurt the company long-term.
LAJEUNESSE: Really, this should be an alarm to investors and to the board.
ALLYN: LaJeunesse says keeping and recruiting some of the brightest stars in tech hinges on Google keeping its reputation. The union could pose a real challenge to that.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.