LOTA, Chile — This is a grim city--somber, wind-swept, its main street lined by gray tin-and-wood houses. The few parks aren't kept up. Garbage clutters dusty streets. Lines of laundry hang in front of tiny houses.
Roads that bustled for decades with trucks hauling coal from Lota's huge state-owned mine are mostly empty now. The mine closed last June, ending the thousands of jobs that were the city's economic backbone.
For some, the constant subject of conversation is leaving this city of 50,000 people, 340 miles south of Santiago. Others don't want to give up on their city.
The new Mining Renaissance labor union is campaigning to bring new businesses to Lota and is pushing the government to do more to help. Leaders criticize government efforts so far as too limited and poorly thought out.
Members say they have heard about towns in other countries that died after similar mine shutdowns.
"But we will not sit arms-crossed to see the funeral carriage take away Lota," said Ricardo Rivera, who was among the last 1,600 workers to lose their jobs.
Rivera said severance money received by miners is still circulating, so the worst effects of the mine closing are to come.
The miners' severance payments averaged the equivalent of $9,100. Many put the money in the bank and are living off the interest. "But others are simply eating it," one union member said.
The mine employed more than 20,000 people at its peak in the early 1970s, but Chile's free-market reforms forced belt-tightening at the overstaffed mine, and the work force gradually decreased until the final shutdown.
At least 3,500 mine-related jobs in transportation and at suppliers also have been lost or are threatened. Various officials say the closing has cost the city's economy $3.5 million a month.
Victor Mendoza, president of Mining Renaissance, said the union formed to fight for the former miners, but it also is working with local businesses and shopkeepers on ways to save the city.
Yolanda Wilson, a city councilwoman and president of the Chamber of Commerce, admitted that retail sales have dropped and that a couple of shops have closed. "But Lota is not going to die," she said, describing her "Lota buys in Lota" campaign. "The idea is that residents buy here instead of going to other cities attracted by larger stores that offer easier credit terms," she said.
As the mine prepared to close, Chile's government promised to ease the impact with programs to bring in new jobs, retrain laid-off miners and provide pension money for early retirements.
"It is not working," said Jose Saez, the union's treasurer, who worked 16 years in the mine, 1,500 feet underground in tunnels that stretch eight miles out under the Pacific. "One program trained 100 barbers in a neighborhood of 200 people," Saez said. "Are they supposed to give haircuts among themselves?"
An alternative-job program so far has hired only about 200 workers, who are paid $200 a month to build a road. "That is only one-third of what they made at the mine," said a union member, Arriagada Lepe. "And you see people who are expert electricians or mechanics just shoveling dust."
Another government program has created 80 jobs, and 200 former miners were temporarily rehired by Enacar to dismantle the mine machinery. "But most of us are still unemployed," said Mendoza, the union president. "They keep getting up at dawn, but then they have nothing to do except stay home all day, which creates domestic tensions."
The government insists it cares about the miners and the city and says it has plans to develop an industrial park and build a major port. It also points to its proposal for developing tourism.
"Look at this city. You see any tourist potential?" Lepe asked with a smile. "Promises, promises--those we have plenty."