Upheavals in the steel, telecommunications and airline industries, along with a continued strong push for cost-cutting by management, are expected to highlight an active year of labor negotiations in 1986, according to business and labor experts.

With inflation expected to remain low, employers generally will face little pressure for large wage increases, according to most analysts. As a result, they predict relatively modest settlements of 2 percent to 4 percent a year for most of the 4 million workers covered by major collective-bargaining agreements that will be renegotiated this year, according to a survey by the Bureau of National Affairs, a private research group.

Wage gains are expected to be somewhat higher in the Washington metropolitan area, where the economy generally has been performing strongly. A recent survey by the Hay Group, a management consulting firm, said wage increases here would be in the 5 percent to 6 percent range.

"Sustained low inflation has made it possible for employers to keep increases relatively low -- while still allowing most employes to at least keep pace with the consumer price index," the survey said.

Nationwide, the Conference Board estimates wage increases of roughly 3.5 percent, up slightly from 1985. In many industries, employers will continue to push for health care cost-containment, will try to introduce two-tier wage systems that lower pay for new hires, and will resist cost-of-living adjustments -- which in recent years have become rarer in wage settlements as inflation has abated, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job security will be a key concern for more than 1.5 million workers in upcoming negotiations in the steel, airlines and telecommunications industries. Bargaining will be going on at six of the nation's largest steel firms, several major airlines, and seven regional telephone companies and American Telephone & Telegraph Co., which will be conducting the first bargaining since the 1984 breakup of AT&T.

In the three industries, increased competition among corporations, deregulation and the breakdown of previous "pattern" settlements are expected to create a turbulent climate for negotiations involving the United Steelworkers of America, the Communications Workers of America, the Air Line Pilots Association and other unions.

The breakup of the Bell System has created a new world of labor negotiations for the CWA, which must for the first time bargain separate contracts with new companies employing some 500,000 telecommunications workers. Instead of a single employer, the union will deal with a diverse group of firms, each seeking cost advantages over their competitors.

AT&T and the regional holding companies are branching out into new and highly competitive businesses such as office computer systems -- sometimes creating nonunion subsidiaries to do so. Some firms will strongly resist the union's effort to negotiate a "master" contract covering all of them when the old contract expires in August.

The steelworkers face the most difficult bargaining in decades because the major firms, led by U.S. Steel, have broken a 30-year practice of "coordinated" bargaining, and will instead negotiate individually.

With imports taking roughly 25 percent of the market, the increased foreign competition has forced steel makers to seek sharp reductions in labor costs.

Steel labor costs average roughly $23 hourly, but the union was forced to agree on an $18-per-hour pact recently with Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. to help the No. 7 steel maker avoid bankruptcy.

Now the other firms are expected to seek similar cost reductions to remain competitive, and the USWA is girding for major confrontations and a possible strike when current contracts covering 130,000 workers expire in August.

American, Pan Am, Delta, Eastern and Trans World airlines will negotiate with pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics amid increased competition and shrinking profits for many carriers.