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The Rise of the Teenage TikTok Labor Organizer

‘These kids on TikTok are organizing a general strike in solidarity with their teachers? Holy shit.’

On Thursday, a Las Vegas teachers union at the fifth-largest school district in the U.S. reached a tentative raise-increase agreement with the Clark County School District, averting two strikes planned for early September. The agreement came just days after one high school student’s TikTok video criticizing the raise shortages went viral.

The TikTok was by Gillian Sullivan, a 16-year-old student at Foothill High School. Last Thursday, her mom, Michelle, a teacher, came home from work feeling dejected that the raise she’d worked overtime and gone back to school to qualify for might not be secured. “When she was frustrated about it, I decided I might as well talk about it,” Sullivan tells MEL. “I’m a speech-and-debate kid, so anytime something frustrates me I talk about it on social media.”

Sullivan made several TikToks calling for her fellow students in the district to skip class on September 5th and strike in solidarity with the teachers demanding contract changes. Her first video reached nearly 150,000 views, boosted by shares on Twitter. “Teachers … spent the past three years earning enough credits out of their own pockets, spending extra hours outside of school to earn credits to get a raise,” Sullivan says in the video. “And our school district won’t give it to them. Like, literally, they won’t pay the teachers what the teachers earned.”

According to BuzzFeed reporter Julia Reinstein, who first covered Sullivan’s call-to-action videos ahead of Thursday’s agreement, teachers were guaranteed professional development raises if they furthered their education. But the district was offering significantly smaller salaries amid recent budget cuts.

Sullivan posted her third TikTok about the strike Thursday night shortly after speaking with BuzzFeed and hearing of the tentative agreement. Employees will now receive a 3 percent salary increase, 2 percent step increases for the next two years and a 4 percent increase in health insurance monthly premiums.

A representative for the Clark County School District said they became aware of the social media posts on August 21st, but “these posts had no impact on contract negotiations.”

Regardless, “I feel really accomplished, and I’m really, really happy for the teachers,” Sullivan tells MEL. “Like honestly, it’s more of a sense of gratitude to be a part of this and stand alongside the teachers I’ve supported. My mom has been a teacher in this district for over 20 years.”

John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, praised Sullivan’s video and tells MEL she helped bring the stalemate to an end with national pressure on the district. “We were very impressed. It was very creative, too, and it really took off,” he says. “It was helpful in our struggle to find a resolution.”

‘Zoomers are NOT fucking around and I have so much respect for this.’

Part of the fascination around Sullivan’s video is rooted in the ongoing evolution of TikTok, a platform most famous for launching Lil Nas X’s viral hit “Old Town Road” through comedic music-video memes.

Sullivan knew her greatest chance of going viral was through TikTok’s algorithm. “On Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat, people only see your stuff if they follow you,” she said. “On TikTok, you can be on anybody’s ‘For You’ page, so I’m really glad things went the way they did on TikTok.”


Sullivan is hesitant to take much credit, though. “If I’m being completely honest, I really didn’t expect it to blow up the way it did,” she says. “I really expected maybe 1,000 views, 100 likes, maybe six or seven comments.” As of Thursday afternoon, the video has over 147,200 views, 36,900 likes and 784 comments.

Sullivan wasn’t the only student to call out the CCSD’s raise freezes and alleged mistreatment of students. Elliot, a student in the district, posted on TikTok and his Instagram story lamenting how “student lives are like negative six.” He posted his video independent of Sullivan’s, unaware she’d also called out the district. “That’s wild,” Elliot says. “She’s 100 percent right. I know so many great teachers who are so under-appreciated.”

‘That makes me furious. This is our school. This is our community. This is our education.’

After seeing Sullivan’s video, Leonardo Bueno, a 17-year-old at Eldorado High School, posted three TikToks outlining the changes made this school year after the principal was placed on leave days before the school year started. The district did not confirm to news station KTNV Las Vegas why the sudden reassignment had been made.

In his TikTok videos, Bueno lamented the raise shortages and budget cuts he first learned about while working as a student aide in the school’s office this year.

“At this school, our voice is not really heard. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re listening,’ but they’re not actually,” Bueno tells MEL of his interactions with district officials. “That makes me furious. This is our school. This is our community. This is our education.”

A representative for the Clark County School District tells MEL, “We support all students who are willing to take the time to research issues that impact education. We encourage students to express their opinions in an appropriate and respectful manner.”

Much like Sullivan, Bueno has no regrets speaking out or angering school officials. He wanted to defend his dance coach who became more than just a teacher. “She is a big part of my life; she’s like my mom,” Bueno says. “Being outspoken on subjects like this that I believe in, I’m not afraid of any consequences.”

Since both the student and teacher strikes are now canceled, Sullivan plans to go to school on Thursday before celebrating the agreement that night. “My only plan on September 5th is to go out with my mom and enjoy the fact that she can finally enjoy her raise.”