BERLIN (AP) _ Thousands of east German workers went on strike at steel and machinery factories today to protest a broken promise to boost their pay closer to levels in western Germany.

The first major strikes in eastern Germany in 60 years come as German leaders struggle to extend the wealth and security of the country's western states to the formerly Communist east.

''This isn't just any labor battle,'' former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher wrote in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. ''Our internal unification is at stake.''

The strikes were called after business leaders broke a two-year-old agreement to raise wages for steel- and metalworkers by 26 percent this year.

The employers' association said the agreement, signed when Germany was cocky and thriving, would bankrupt many companies and increase the 15 percent jobless rate in formerly Communist eastern Germany.

The companies have offered a 9 percent wage increase, enough to keep up with inflation. The eastern German metal- and steelworkers earn an average of $937 per month, about half that of their western counterparts.

The union has shown a willingness to renegotiate the 26 percent figure but says employers first must restore the contract, the first to be broken by a company since the industry-wide negotiating system went into effect in West Germany after World War II.

About 15,000 workers at 26 factories in Saxony and Brandenburg stayed off their shifts starting at midnight Sunday.

About 100 strikebreakers rushed the gates at the Volkswagen plant near Zwickau in Saxony, and two strikers were hurt in a scuffle, according to Dieter Riemann, a union representative. But the plant, whose 2,700 employees produce Golf cars, will be idled until the strike is over, a Volkswagen spokesman said.

Union leader Franz Steinkuehler, addressing a rally in Dresden early today, said job actions would expand over the next three weeks throughout economically depressed eastern Germany, where the union has 400,000 members - 100,000 of them unemployed.

Union and employer representatives were to meet this afternoon to begin trying to end the strike.

Eastern German workers as a whole got about 62 percent of the wages of their western counterparts in 1992, but production costs in the east were about 75 percent higher than in the west, according to Germany's central bank.

Under these conditions, said Karsten Blue, an American businessman in Dresden, the strike is ''suicide.''

''The East Germans are dedicated and hardworking and hungrier than in the west, but the wage increases are rendering production uneconomic,'' said Blue. ''Companies will go to Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary, and Germany will end up with a service economy like the U.S.''

Steinkuehler, whose IG-Metall union has 3.6 million members and ample strike funds, said principle was at stake as much as money. He said the employers were trying to break the power of organized labor in Germany.

While critics charge that Germany's labor postwar labor pact has resulted in unreasonably high wages, it also has meant few strikes. In 1990, Germany lost 40 days work per 1,000 workers, compared with 435 in Britain and 1,042 in Italy, according to International Labor Organization figures.