Dental Nurses March on Parliament 1974

Following my “OE” I returned to work in Auckland as a school dental nurse - January 1972. At that time Auckland school dental nurses were becoming increasingly brassed off, primarily about the muddily way some service resources were managed and the pettiness of some of their managers.

dental nurses Dental nurses' deputation to the Prime Minister, 29 March 1974.

For instance, large wooden crates containing new comfortable operating chairs sat in dental clinics for months on end, (up to 18 months) without being installed. Clinic inspections often focussed on finding fault with inconsequential things like a bit of dust on an out-of-reach ledge.  These things were irritants rather than show-stoppers but added together, stirred resentment .  Given the general feeling of dissatisfaction, it was agreed we should contact the union for advice on what to do.  This led to a discovery that galvanised the Auckland school dental nurses into action.  

We learnt the State Services Commission was refusing to recognise the established pay fixing relativity between School Dental Nurses and Public Health Nurses.   At the time dental nurses were not particularly active in the PSA, and were unaware their employer (SSC) was playing hard and fast with the rules.  By refusing to recognise the pay relativity, the school dental nursing group was being denied a pay increase.  On learning this we determined to rectify it.  

The first step was to establish an “Action Committee” to formulate and implement a plan of action.  A stopwork meeting of Auckland dental nurses followed.  Actions involved lobbying MPs and anyone who would listen.  We also sought support from other public service groups whose pay fixing relativity would be affected if the SSC refused to recognise their established relativities.  The Auckland Meat Inspectors at Westfield were one of these groups.  After I spoke at a stop-work meeting resolutions of support were passed, starting a chain-reaction throughout meat works.  This support was very valuable as meat inspectors’ industrial muscle was legendary at the time.  

Besides meetings with MPs, four of us decided to gate crash a National Party fund-raising barbeque where Muldoon and George Gair (the health shadow spokesperson) both promised to support our cause.   They would say that, wouldn’t they?   However, by that time a proposal to bring school dental nurses together from around the country to march on parliament had been raised with and supported by the executive of the PSA.  It was all on!
School Dental Clinic phones ran hot as the task of organising the Auckland delegation (of about 70) was handled by a small handful of action committee members.  I remember my work output suffering as a consequence but it was made easier by most members enthusiastically wanting to join the march.   When we had finally sorted out who would be on the delegation, we were told the date had had to be changed (parliament needed to be in session) so we had to start the process all over again.  

The big day finally arrived.  We wore our red and white uniforms for impact   Wellington had never witnessed a large group of women marching on parliament before and the sight of several hundred school dental nurses in full uniform was clearly impressive.  Bystanders cheered and clapped as we walked from the Town Hall down Lambton Quay.  At parliament, a delegation led by the General Secretary (Dan Long) and President (Jack Batt) proceeded to Prime Minister Norm Kirk’s office, while the others swarmed the Beehive.  After lengthy argy-bargy Norm Kirk accepted the PSA argument and after signing the agreement, it was back to the Town Hall where everyone had re-grouped.   The good news was greeted with cheers of joy and a wonderful sense of pride.   By challenging the unilateral decision by the SSC , (backed by the then Minister of State Services and Minister of Health, Bob Tizard) we achieved a welcome pay increase, but also the pay fixing machinery for others was protected.

It was an immensely profound time for me – it defined the idea that being brave enough to stand up for you and others at work (by doing something about it) can instil a strong sense of pride.  And, collective action can result in rewards that cannot be achieved individually.  In short it was a politicising experience, not only for me but for many others around the country.  It also consolidated our understanding of the importance of having the backing of a well-resourced union.   

A couple of years later, School Dental Nurses through the PSA, went on to successfully press a health and safety case against the Department of Health, over the hazardous use of mercury in dental clinics.  This too was a ground breaking case with the outcome delivering a code-of-practice and a new safe process for the use of mercury.    

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