The union announced the death of Mr Bickerstaffe, who was educated and lived in Doncaster in his early career, this morning.
Tributes have been paid to the union boss who led public sector union NUPE before it merged to become Unison.
Current Unison general secretary Dave Prentis 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.
“Our thoughts are with Rodney’s family, especially his wife Pat who was an ever present support to him in all his work and was the love of his life.
“At the time of Rodney’s death it is worth reflecting on his response during the Winter of Discontent to the question ‘what about the dignity of the dead?’
"Rodney replied ‘what about the dignity of the living?’ We at Unison hold this truth close – and we will continue Rodney’s fight to ensure dignity for our members, our families and all in our communities.
“When asked what he believed his greatest achievements were, he would respond: the National Minimum Wage and the creation of Unison. I’m sure many of us recall the powerful speeches and advocacy he provided to deliver these goals. Rodney was at his best when he was fighting for the causes he believed in, and our movement has today lost one of the greatest campaigners and orators of his generation.
“Everyone involved in our union will share in the grief felt at Rodney’s passing. He was a friend, a comrade and a leader, and thanks to his work the lives of countless people have been changed for the better.
“Rodney was the very best of us, a true giant of our movement and we will all miss him greatly.”
Doncaster Central MP Dame Rosie Winterton said: “I am extremely sad that Rodney has died.
"Rodney was a very committed trade unionist and fought on behalf of working people all his life.
"He was a Doncaster hero and very much loved here. Rodney was a true friend and it was an honour to have known him.
"He will be sadly missed by so many and my deepest condolences go to his wife Pat and his beloved family.”
Born in London on April 6, 1945, Bickerstaffe's mother was unmarried at a time when it was considered shameful to be a single mother.
He lived for three years with his mother in east London in a home for unmarried mothers. He then moved to Doncaster and was educated at Doncaster Grammar School and in sociology at Rutherford College of Technology.
He became an organiser for the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) in 1966 in Yorkshire, rising through the ranks to be divisional officer of the northern division.
He then became national officer responsible for members working in local government, universities and the water industry and in 1981 was appointed NUPE general secretary.
When NUPE, COHSE and NALGO merged to create Unison in July 1993, Bickerstaffe became associate general secretary. He was elected general secretary in November 1995, taking office in 1996.
He retired from Unison in 2001 and succeeded Jack Jones as president of the National Pensioners Convention in April 2001.
The organisation champions the rights and voice of Britain's 11 million pensioners and campaigns for better pensions and healthcare.
Bickerstaffe stood down in 2005 to focus on his international commitments and was succeeded by Frank Cooper.
He also had honorary doctorates from Keele University, the University of Hertfordshire and Sheffield Hallam University as well as the Freedom of the Borough of Doncaster.