Janet Quigley was a dental nurse working for many years in school clinics. Janet became involved with the PSA in the late 1980s in an attempt to make it work better for her profession. But in the 1990s, the National Government began the restructuring of all health services into CHEs – Crown Health Enterprises. Unlike hospital nurses, the school dental service operated in separate workplaces, making it much harder to resist change. As wages and conditions were eroded, morale dropped drastically. Few entered the profession.
“The health reformers didn’t know where to put dental nurses. They based us in a Crown Health Enterprise (CHE) called Health Link South, attached to Princess Margaret Hospital. But that CHE was mostly concerned with mental health and older persons’ health, so it didn’t suit us. At one stage they were going to sell us off to the University of Otago, but that fell through. Then came the restructuring.
I was very heavily involved as the PSA spokesperson on the restructuring committee. We had a huge fight about the fact that it came down to costings. It was the young ones who had to go because they were cheaper to pay out. Totally bizarre! We lost those in their early-mid-20s, those with their whole career in front of them, a generation of dental nurses. There were about 30 redundancies from our CHE and I chose not to see the names till the job was done. They were very hurt, they wouldn’t even answer calls. There were a lot of older ones who were happy to go, but the CHE wouldn’t part with the necessary money. Now there’s all of us in our 60s still working, while they would be in their late 40s now and we could really do with them. We got some of them back but only as assistants [by the time the system could re-accommodate them, their training was outdated and they would have had to pay to retrain].
The bargaining table was a frustrating experience. We had almost no training, we were simply told how to behave. The PSA organisers did most of the talking, though many were new and at the mercy of the CEO and his management or HR team. We didn’t win anything, they just kept chipping away at all the things we’d fought hard for. The CEOs that came from health, they might have been more sympathetic but they still had to do what they had to do. There were people on the CHE from the Ministry to make sure everyone was toeing the party line.
Being a PSA delegate and bargainer was part and parcel of what I did. Sometimes it was very tricky for my job, but I challenged anyone who held it against me. I wasn’t there to make life easy for them, I was there to make life better for our members. I remember things being thrown at us, being sworn at. But you had to rise above it. In the middle of all this I decided to apply for a team leader’s job, to put my money where my mouth was. After the interview the supervising dental nurse rang me and said, “Do you accept?” And I said, “Accept what?” I just couldn’t believe they were offering the position to me!
Different terms and conditions were negotiated with all the different CHEs. A few nurses were able to maintain their previous conditions for a while, but most couldn’t. Different practices evolved, the tooth-filling materials you used depended on the budget in your area. It was hard to find a job in a different place because the practices became so different. We were in competition mode. If you developed something, you weren’t able to share it with your colleagues in other places because we might have been able to sell it to them.
Few were entering the service. Pay was going down, we were losing conditions. Why would anyone want to be a dental nurse? While there used to be relativity with public health nurses, we’d lost that. The relativity was downsized to enrolled nurses [second-tier hospital nurses]. No-one negotiating for the CHEs understood our role or our worth. All they knew was that they hated going to the dental nurse at school and based the rubbish they threw across the table at us on that. Salary movements were zilch for 14-15 years. We fell into a very big hole and didn’t get out till we went into the MECA [the Multi Employer Collective Agreement, post-2000].
We also lost the ability to determine training. They closed the schools progressively – Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington. It went to the polytechs. Graduates came out with very little experience, basically they couldn’t do the job. That put some of them off too. We [senior dental nurses] then had to put them through additional training programmes to bring them up to speed. Then dental therapist [name change from early 1990s] training went to the dental school at the University of Otago, but they took the tutors from the polytechs, so things didn’t improve much.
And they weren’t recruiting. There were only 12 or so in a class, and most of these would be overseas students, so we’d be lucky if we got two or three grads. And those that did graduate just headed to Australia, where pay rates were a lot better. In the late 1990s, Auckland University of Technology set up an opposition training programme, now a three-year degree in dental hygiene.
By the late ‘90s the school dental service as we knew it had changed completely. There were far fewer school clinics, most had moved into community centres, where the onus was on the parents to get the children there. It was as though nobody valued our work or cared about us. I don’t think dental nurses recovered from it. They lost all sense of belonging.”