HAMBURG, Germany -- Hounded on all sides by employers bent on cutting costs, Germany's once-intimidating IG Metall metalworkers union finds itself on the back foot as the country marks 60 years of modern trade unionism.
But Wednesday's commemorative ceremonies will fall in the shadow of a landmark wage deal last year that lets companies undercut sector-wide pay accords, so union leaders will mark the day to a backdrop of resentment in the ranks and dwindling membership.
Automakers such as DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and General Motors' Opel unit have pushed through savings programs at the expense of the world's best-paid car workers.
Other major employers have forced staff to work longer hours to boost competitiveness.
"There is no end to the pressure in the companies," a senior union official told Reuters. "We have to react with strategic responses."
Employers' association Gesamtmetall counts 160 cases in which company works councils have agreed with management to deviate from sector-wide wage deals to give struggling firms a leg up and preserve jobs at a time of record post-war unemployment.
Long jobless queues, reduced benefits under government reforms and threats to outsource work to cheaper places abroad have shaken many employees into making concessions as the next round of negotiations approaches early next year.
"For 15 years the union forced pay deals on us. Now it is our turn," the personnel chief at one big tire maker said confidently.
Stung by its inability to force shorter working weeks in formerly communist eastern Germany via strikes, IG Metall has seen its power fade. It lost 75,000 members last year to 2.45 million, a trend seen at other major unions, too.
Overall union membership shrank by 305,000 in 2004 to just above 7 million.
"It is not just the social welfare state that is at stake. The survival of unions as powerful forces to shape events is at risk," an IG Metall manifesto says.
Labor experts say union leaders slept through important developments that were altering German society.
"I see the (trade union federation) DGB cornered in a strategic and political cluelessness that it will not escape for now," said Berlin-based union researcher Hans-Peter Mueller.
"They don't have any answers. Many yearn for the way things used to be."