Born in Walthamstow, London, the fifth child of Emily and George Thomas Todd. His father was a stall holder in a local street market and his mother was a pianist who accompanied silent film. Owing to his mother's influence Ron grew up with a love of Victorian ballads and music hall songs and became an accomplished pianist himself. The family was Roman Catholic and Ron attended St Patrick's school, where he was an altar boy. As an altar boy he accidentally set fire to a priest's cassock during the stations of the cross, as penance he was forced to recite many Ave Marias while the school prayed for him, receiving the occasional smack from the attendant nuns.
Not long after starting work at the Ford plant his natural leadership qualities shone through and he became a shop steward and soon deputy convener of shop stewards. In the year 1962, he became a full-time T&G officer based at the Edmonton office and was responsible for chemical, engineering and metal groups. So effective was he that the discerning General Secretary of the T&G, Jack Jones, moved Todd to the Stratford office, so that he could take charge of the interests of workers at the Dagenham plant.
Recognised as a mighty effective negotiator, who tended to avoid any gratuitous strike action, Todd was made Regional Secretary for London and the South-East in 1975 and responsible for half a million or more members. He became friendly with Moss Evans, then responsible for the motor industry, and in 1978 to succeed Jones as General Secretary. Evans appointed Todd as National Organiser, at the centre of the T&G high command.
It was as National Organiser that Todd became a household name as the officer in charge of the Ford pay negotiations at the fag end of the Callaghan government in the autumn of 1978. He won a 17 per cent pay rise, so driving a coach and horses through the Government's pay norm of 5 per cent. Jim Callaghan was faced with a Commons vote of confidence in the Government's pay policy. Evans and Todd passionately believed that they were correct to put the interests of their members before the entreaties of Labour ministers. Todd was adamant that it is the function of trade unions to negotiate on behalf of their members and that it was Labour ministers by their actions who had destroyed the Labour government, and not the trade unions, in the aftermath of the Winter of Discontent, 1978–79.
Todd had assumed that National Organiser would be his last job and that he would retire at the same moment as Moss Evans. Fate took a different turn. Evans gave up due to ill-health and retired to King's Lynn in Norfolk, persuading Ron to stand for election as General Secretary.
After being elected to succeed Moss Evans as the union's seventh general secretary in 1985, following a second ballot, he was also named as an honorary vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Todd earned a reputation for his commitment to human rights and was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa.
In demanding such a vote he had two objectives in mind - to stymie the Daily Mail and the Daily Express from making the most of allegations of wrongdoing to drag the Transport and General Workers' name into the dirt; and to stop the George Wright faction on his own executive using the allegations against him. His behaviour enhanced his authority.
Ron's final move before he retired was to pave the way for his successor, Bill Morris, the first black leader of a major British trade union. That, in itself, was an epitaph characteristic of the man.