Jeremy Corbyn also paid tribute to the former general secretary of Unison and its forerunner Nupe, calling him “a pal, a leader and a very decent human being.”
The Labour leader added: “He played a huge role in the labour movement — as a leader of low-paid workers, as founding general secretary of Unison and as a tireless champion of the minimum wage.
“Rodney always provided guidance to me as an MP and was a loud and important voice in all debates within the party.”
Rodney Kevan Bickerstaffe was born out of wedlock in 1945 to Elizabeth, a nurse from Yorkshire.
His father Tommy was an Irish carpenter who returned to Dublin after a short relationship with his mother.
He was initially brought up in a home for unmarried mothers, before he and his mother moved back to Doncaster, where they shared a room in his grandparents’ house.
His mother married when he was 11, and reportedly threw away all evidence of his father bar one small picture. It was five decades later that Mr Bickerstaffe, by then Unison leader, discovered he had three brothers in Ireland.
At 21, he became a trade union official with Nupe. After a spell as an area officer in Yorkshire, he moved to London, where he steadily rose through the ranks, becoming Nupe general secretary in 1982.
Mr Bickerstaffe led the organisation to merge with fellow public-sector unions Nalgo and Cohse in 1993. Three years later, he was elected to lead what was then Britain’s biggest union.
He successfully campaigned for the introduction of the national minimum wage and led the rebellion in favour of restoring the link between pensions and earnings at the 2000 Labour conference.
Current Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, who took over from Mr Bickerstaffe, said: “Rodney, or Bick as he was known to many, was a great personal friend to many of us and a dedicated champion of all the union members he proudly represented throughout his career.
“He coupled a great sense of humour and love of laughter with a deep-rooted sense of social justice and commitment to Unison.”
Former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill said: “The working class has lost an outstanding leader and I have lost a close personal friend who supported me and my members during the 50 years of our friendship.”