Talks regarding employment agreements for many of the 165,000 federal bureaucrats nationally are underway.

Talks regarding employment agreements for many of the 165,000 federal bureaucrats nationally are underway. Photo: Erin Jonasson

The Australian Tax Office has entered workplace bargaining talks with 20,000 staff by warning one union official about running a campaign in the media and by releasing a list of positive changes it wants to make to the new agreement.

On the first day of bargaining, the Tax Office released its position on non-pay elements of the new agreement. These included a willingness to maintain existing maternity and sick leave provisions and increase flex time for part-time staff.

But the meeting in Canberra was devoid of talk about sensitive issues on pay and the ATO's suggested cutbacks or productivity measures required to ensure increases to pay and conditions.

Australian Services Union tax branch secretary Jeff Lapidos said the most concerning piece of information from Monday's meeting was confirmation money saved by massive restructures and cuts to staff numbers - the agency will lose 4700 staff by 2018, according to budget papers - would not count as productivity gains workers could use to protect pay and conditions. This is in line with the federal government's bargaining framework

"Pay rises will only be funded by cuts to conditions," Mr Lapidos said. 

Before three days of meetings started on Monday, the ATO sent a letter to Mr Lapidos about comments he made in The Canberra Times last week when he said members would likely take industrial action if they were made to work an extra nine minutes a day while other conditions were stripped and the pay offer negligible.

"Enterprise bargaining negotiations are very rarely assisted if a concurrent campaign is being conducted in the media," the letter from ATO acting assistant commissioner of people David Miller said.

The letter, which encouraged the union official to keep an open mind about offers, raised concerns about Mr Lapidos' statement that industrial action would be designed to hurt ATO commissioner Chris Jordan and the government as much as possible.

"If you organise action against the commissioner personally or the government politically, as distinct from the ATO in its capacity as an employer, that action will not be protected industrial action," the letter said.

"You and your members should expect an extremely vigorous response."

Mr Lapidos responded by saying his comment did not mean he would hurt the commissioner personally or the government politically.

"I expect any protected industrial action would be designed to hurt commissioner Jordan by hampering the ATO’s implementation of his 2020 vision," Mr Lapidos wrote.

"Such protected industrial action would also be designed to hurt the government by restricting the ATO’s collection of the revenue.

"I expect we would persist with such protected industrial action until the government and the ATO are prepared to negotiate a new ATO enterprise agreement that meets our objective."

The ASU was not the only staff representative in bargaining meetings. The Community and Public Sector Union and individual staff representatives - the latter numbered more than 20 and was believed to represent about 100 workers - were also in the room.

The ATO is putting in place massive reforms, such as introducing voice recognition technology that could replace 100 full-time equivalent staff, and introducing a new tick-and-flick system for taxpayers that will reduce the need for up to 1.4 million Australians to lodge returns.