With the curtain about to rise on next year's heavy round of labor contract negotiations, administration inflation fighters are saying the country may have to endure more strikes in order to slow the pace of wage and price increases.

This comes less than a year after the administration encouraged the coal industry to settle a long miners' strike by sweetening what was already one of the most inflationary contract proposals in years.

This new approach toward strikes -- triggered by the administration's mounting concern over the nation's mounting inflation -- angers union leaders, worries some business people and threatens many sleepless nights at the bargaining table for those, including government officials, whose job it is to avoid or settle strikes.

Those in charge of the administration's anti-inflation program emphasize they are not advocating strikes, which are now at their lowest level in a decade. But they assert that strikes may be necessary to check what they consider to be excessive union demands.

Strikes are "highly painful and undesirable," said presidential inflation adviser Alfred E. Kahn on NBC's "Meet the Press" early last month, "but I think if there are irresponsible unions, we may have to be willing to take a strike in order to beat inflation."

R. Robert Russell, deputy director of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, the program's main anti-inflation enforcement agency, told a forum later in the month: "I think we ought to be prepared to endure more strikes than usual."

Said a spokesman for the anti-inflation effort: "What we're saying is that there are a lot of things worse than strikes, and endless, uncontrolled inflation is one of them."

The AFL-CIO, which strongly opposes the administration's anti-inflation guidelines, suspects that the administration is actively encouraging strikes as a tool to keep down labor costs. "They're clearly asking corporations to increase their strike activity," said Rudy Owsald, the federation's research director. "They're saying they want the corporations to be enforcers."

Jack W. Carlson, chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, put it this way: "The government is great on telling everyone to hold the line, but they're the first ones to run for cover when the difficulty comes... Businesses know that once a strike comes, they're all alone."

Regardless of the motivation behind the strike talk, the pressure to hold the line on labor cost increases is such that the man in the middle -- Fedrela Mediation and Conciliation Service Director Wayne L. Horvitz -- issued a directive recently reminding mediators they have a "historic reputation as neutrals" in resolving labor disputes and are "not expected to operate as an enforcement arm of the (anti-inflation) program." Said a mediator: "Our whole credibility is at stake."

No one can say with any certainty whether more work stoppages -- with resulting consumer inconvenience and economic disruption -- will occur next year as contracts expire in the petroleum, trucking, rubber, electrical products, garment and auto industries, as well as for hundreds of thousands of government workers.

For private industry, these contracts represent roughly 3.8 million of the 9.6 million workers covered by major (1,000 or more workers) collective bargaining agreements. They include such pattern-setters as autos and trucking, which normally establish the goals and limits for the rest of the three-year bargaining cycle.

One who has offered a prediction is Horvitz the government's chief mediator, who has said strikes will be "longer and harder to settle," although there may not necessarily be more of them.

Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said the accuracy of this prophecy is likely to hinge on how much flexibility is built into the anti-inflation guidelines, undergoing review and refinement. One key question is how to count the cost of maintaining existing benefit levels, including health care and pensions.

The AFL-CIO's Oswald predicts more strikes, but James D. McKevitt, Washington counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business, sees that as a possibility with or without the guidelines. "The fear of inflation is so strong," he said, "that there's a feeling out there of 'Let's bite the bullet and tough it out -- if it takes a strike to do it, then take a strike.'"

In the public sector, where both federal and local budget contraints compund pressures to hold the line on labor costs, union leader Jerry Wurf sees more worker unrest.

"We're kinda scared," said Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes, which will negotiate for about 400,000 workers this spring. If President Carter follows through on his pledge to reduce the annual federal deficit from $50 billion to $30 billion next year, "there will be such disorder in the delivery of public services that I can't but believe that strikes will increase," Wurf said.

A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report indicated there were fewer strikes so far this year than for any comparable period in the last decade, although the work time lost from strikes was higher than for some previous years because of the long coal strike last winter. But it also showed an increase over the past year in the proportion of strikes caused by wage disputes.

Moreover, other government figures show a substantial increase in rank-and-file rejection of proposed settlements, indicating a membership restiveness and militancy that may cause union leaders to bargain harder.

There are forces working to discourage strikes as well as encourage them.

There are forces working to discourage strikes as well as encourage them.

The 7 percent wage increase guideline, to the extent that it becomes a floor as well as a ceiling and thus undercuts the purpose of guidelines, may make it easier for some hardpressed unions to get more than they might have before without resorting to a strike, some officials note. The government's threatened use of import flexibility, procurement practices and regulatory actions could also discourage guideline-busting strikes. Automation can also offer strike protection in some industries like petroleum, where contracts covering 45,000 workers expire early next month.

Moreover, in the trucking industry, where strike talk sends shudders through the whole economy, the Teamsters are impeded by the growth of nonunion trucking and their own declining hold on the industry, the risk of government retaliation on a variety of fronts and their own efforts to overcome a tarnished public image.

One trend already discerned is for shorter contracts and more clauses calling for annual wage renegotiations, according to federal mediators. Inflation fighters and some union leaders, including Douglas A. Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers, which will be negotiating for 650,000 "Big Three" workers this summer, have suggested one-year contracts. "The issue is a trade-off between costs and stability," said one government official.