The PSA’s greatest victory?

The PSA’s greatest victory?

Former PSA staffer Noel O’Hare explains why he wrote Tooth & Veil, a history of school dental nurses and the day they stormed the corridors of power.

On 29 March 1974 more than 600 uniformed school dental nurses proceeded silently down Wellington’s Lambton Quay.  It was, as one observer noted, “almost certainly the largest demonstration of women since the days of the suffragettes”. 

They were on their way to Parliament to meet with Prime Minister Norman Kirk and demand a long overdue pay rise and restored relativity with public health nurses.

Tooth and Veil Cover4

Releasing Thursday 9 April

But it was about so much more than money. Since the School Dental Service was founded in 1921, they’d been treated as inferior beings, “slaves of the dental profession” as one nurse put it, and subjected to petty, military style discipline that was out of step with the times.

The PSA had come to their aid, spending more than $100,000 in today’s money to transport them from every corner of New Zealand to the capital. Delegates like Pam Horncy, Maggie Morgan and Annette King played a vital role in organising the march.


Blocked from entering Parliament’s main entrance, they swarmed through side doors. “A human tidal wave of red and white surged down the corridors in search of MPs,” wrote Tom Scott, then the Listener’s parliamentary reporter. A delegation met with Norman Kirk, State Services minister Bob Tizard and other officials. After nearly two hours of toing and froing, Kirk suddenly stood up. “I think we can fix this,” he said. “I’ll leave Bob here to tend to the detail.” According to Maggie Morgan, Tizard looked “really cheesed off”. But officials quickly hammered out a short five-clause agreement on the spot and the dental nurses had their pay rise and back pay.


Afterwards PSA President Jack Batt addressed the dental nurses. He later recorded in his diary: “I told them the result of the deputation - it was pandemonium. I have never seen a more excited group of people. It was exhilarating and very moving. Probably one of the great moments in PSA history.”

The dental nurses had achieved more than wage justice, they’d won respect as workers who needed to be listened to. They demanded changes to occupational health and safety. For decades they’d been exposed daily to toxic mercury vapour when preparing fillings. As a result of their activism all dental nurses were tested for mercury levels and clinics were decontaminated.


The march was a pivotal moment in the dental nurses’ history. It inspired many to become more active in the PSA and fight for pay equity and other women’s issues. Pam Horncy joined the union as an organiser, Maggie Morgan became chairperson of the PSA’s dental nurses’ group. Annette King stood for Parliament and became the Labour MP for Horowhenua in 1984. 

It was while researching material for the PSA’s Centenary in 2013 that I came across the story of the dental nurses’ march. But much else had never been written about: the controversial start of the School Dental Service in 1921, the courageous pioneer nurses, daily life in clinic and hostel and the demise of the service as public services came under fire in 1980s. It was a story that needed to be told. 

To go in the draw to win a copy of Tooth & Veil tell us which former dental nurse and PSA delegate went on to become a Labour MP For more about the book go to



PSA President Janet Quigley was a second year school dental nurse graduate in 1974.

“Seeing the results of that march on Parliament set me on my path in the union movement,” she recalls.

Janet says the military style training, curfews, and sexual harassment of trainee dental nurses which occurred then would never be tolerated now.

But they also had great fun figuring out how to get around the rules.

“We had inspectors falling out of trees when they were trying to check up on us.”

Janet recommends the book to anyone with an interest in social history and the union movement.

“It’s an entertaining read. When I look back I realise how far we’ve come as women.”

group PSA journal article2

PSA activists Maggie Morgan, Sheila Brown, Pam Horncy and Kathryn Lanyon were still fighting for funding for dental nurses in the 1980s

Also in this issue:

‘We thank you for your brave stand’

As forty or so people gathered in the blazing Wairarapa sun, only two had ever joined a protest before in their lives. Within twenty minutes, they were leading their own chants and you could hear them for miles.

Read the full post

“Remember the loss but also remember the hope”

PSA delegate Benjamin Gresham says the Christchurch Invitation is a call to spread peace, reconnect, and feed the hungry - which draws on the teachings of the Muslim tradition.

Read the full post

Leading the charge on contractor rights

The PSA made a change to its rules in 2018 by enabling contractors and labour hire workers to become members.

Read the full post

Make it Real

Their work often goes unnoticed - but they’re the ones that keep organisations running smoothly, the ones you turn to when things go wrong, the ones that are first to greet the public.

Read the full post

Mana Wahine Claim goes to Waitangi

The stall gave us an opportunity to kōrero kanohi ki te kanohi with the wider community about the kaupapa of Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina’s Waitangi Tribunal claim.

Read the full post

Opportunities and issues with new bill

The PSA welcomes most aspects of the bill - but there are issues it does not address and we drew these to the attention of the select committee.

Read the full post

"We have come too far to not go further"

The Public Service in its current form is failing Māori. This is abundantly clear as Māori are over-represented in all negative social statistics. We need a public service that delivers for Māori.

Read the full post

We Count

More than 30% of lesbian, gay and bisexual public service workers who responded to the State Service Commission’s We Count Survey last year reported being uncomfortable being open or out at work.

Read the full post

Maranga Mai

The guiding purpose of Maranga mai o ngā whakangungu ā rohe is to enable Māori delegates to use their perspective and experience to advocate for Te Tiriti o Waitangi in their workplaces.

Read the full post

Pacific organisers speak of challenges and triumphs

The organisers from Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Australia, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands were attending the International Trade Union Confederation-Asia Pacific workshop in Nadi in November.

Read the full post

Climate Talk

Tried talking to your Dad about the bushfires in Australia only to discover he’s a climate change denier?

Read the full post

Holiday Home Snaps

The snaps from holiday home stays around the country show just how much fun and relaxation our PSA accommodation has to offer .

Read the full post

The Marlene Pitman Award

This award was originally created in honour of Marlene Pitman, who passed away on 16th January 2010, to recognise her membership and service of 25 years. As an activist at Child Youth and Family, she was convenor of the Social Services sector committee and an executive board member for 2 years, a delegate for 23 years and a hardworking member of Te Komiti o Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina.

Read the full post

Radio NZ

A groundswell of public and political opposition to that plan soon led to a backdown from the RNZ Board and management.

Read the full post

Book Review: Pay Packets and Stone Walls

At the beginning of her memoir Elizabeth Orr pledges to tell the truth about the fight for pay equity for women, her reasoning being that it has lessons for the future.

Read the full post

New CTU Secretary Looks to the Future

“I had completed a conjoint arts and law degree so the position tapped into my passion for drama and the arts as well as my knowledge of employment law and policy,” the 31 year-old recalls.

Read the full post

Leading the Way

“As a child I thought everyone had a Mum and Dad who cared about them,” says the Ngāti Kahungunu wahine who grew up in a loving whānau environment.

Read the full post

On the Job

“I can help with mental and physical health problems. I want to provide a service where they don’t need to see lots of people.

Read the full post

Te Reo o te Tari

*Good morning.* Mōrena/Ata mārie. *Welcome to (workplace).* Nau mai ki . *Are you busy?* He nui ō mahi? *I am very busy!* He tino nui aku mahi! *No. I am not very busy. Kāo.* Kāore i nui aku mahi. Kei te aha koe? *What are you doing? *Kei te tuhituhi au. *I am writing. *Kei te mahi au.* I am working.*

Read the full post