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 has what has happened. Don't forget to take notes on it,' " said Muthukumar, 25, who is based in New York City.
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, named after Google's parent company, it now represents more than 500 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 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 change to protect ourselves," Muthukumar said.
Already, the union is exerting its influence. After Facebook announced indefinitely banning Trump, and Twitter temporarily suspended the president's account, 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. Yet 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 abrupt firing in December of prominent Black researcher Timnit Gebru, who co-led a team examining the ethics of artificial intelligence technologies, sped up the union's timeline. 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 median pay of around $200,000 and other company perks have kept many employees quiet about publicly criticizing 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 Chris Benner, professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, who has long studied the tech sector. "I would not be surprised if we saw more of than 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. It did issued a statement that said the company has always "worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace" and that it will "continue engaging directly with all our employees."
Ross LaJeunesse, a former Google executive, had this reaction to this statement: "It just struck me as an example that they really don't get it."
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 a company reorganizations, not because of his internal resistance.
Whatever the reason, LaJeunesse is someone familiar with the thinking of top brass at Google, and he said 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 shows that company executives have not directly engaged 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 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."